If you read DC Comics before the year 2020, you would have experienced them in more or less real time. While the stories moved due to what is commonly called a “shifting timeline” the order of the appearance of heroes remained linked to the eras they appeared in.
Do Reboots Matter?
The shifting timeline is how comic companies deal with their heroes never aging at the same rate as their readers. Different comics handle this in different ways. DC and Marvel reboot their Universes periodically moving their primary characters forward in time in order to keep them young and central to their comic Universes.
In some cases, comic companies will reveal this in a tongue-in-cheek manner using all-powerful characters rebooting everything because the heroes are necessary to the world and they are unaware of the reboots which change their lives for more modern readers.
Do reboots matter? In my opinion, rebooting comics, particularly if your Universe is unable to create new properties, can be the difference between retooling the company or completely going out of business.
The reason for rebooting can vary. Whether it be due to the company’s policies which prevent them from sharing proceeds more fairly with creators or because the company is moribund and lacking in the ability to create new characters, the sliding timeline is a stop-gap measure allowing writers to work with aging intellectual properties until the company evolves well enough to create new ideas capable of carrying the company along.
Let me be the first to say, DC isn’t doing anything new. They are simply changing the names of the pieces and eras for their convenience. We’ll begin with a discussion of the DC Universe before the modern timeline.
The Golden Age
The “Golden Age of Comics” was any comic story or heroes which appeared after the appearance of the the godfather of all costumed heroes, Superman, who appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1939. This era would also embrace all of the heroes which were purchased by DC Comics including the Charleston heroes and the Shazam Family. This lasts until the mid 1950s.
The Silver Age: Pre-Crisis Universe
Then Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Justice Society, and a host of other “mystery men” whose adventures would be chronicled until the late 1950s and early 1960s when the “Silver Age” would re-brand many of the Golden Age heroes with more modern “science-oriented” heroes.
This would establish the DC Universe having parallel realities where the Golden Age heroes lived on Earth-2 and the more modern ones lived on Earth-1, allowing both sets of heroes to continue to exist. At least until 1986 when DC decided to engage in the most destructive renovation of their Universe ever, the Crisis on Infinite Earths.
The Modern Age: The Post-Crisis Universe
After the destruction of the DC Multiverse, the Post-Crisis DC Universe spent the next twenty years trying to put things back together with their various attempts to depower Superman, restructure all of their heroes into the same Universe, while shuffling the Golden Age heroes into a pseudo-limbo where they did exist but no one remembered them, except when they did. Which lead to Zero Hour and a bunch of attempts to bring those heroes back without actually bringing them back into the continuity.
This was leading to the series 52 where DC tried to bring back a tangential series of parallel realities where their most well-known parallel Universes and characters could exist available to be written by writers who wanted a chance to play with some of DC’s earlier creations in their own private Universes. Not ideal and the problems of continuity grew worse and lead to the darkening of the DC Universe and by the time it was all over, the Post Crisis Universe and its various attempts to course correct would lead to an attempt to reconcile the various timelines, past and future, into what was dubbed “Flashpoint”.
The Flashpoint, where beleaguered fans and writers tried one more time to reconcile the previous timelines of the DC Universe and would eventually re-establish the 52 tangential Universes, with the Prime Earth becoming the main Universe from which all of the others were echoes of this Universe. The Flashpoint stories lead to what was dubbed the New 52 Universe.
The New 52
Arguably a terrible revival, The New 52 (2011) would recycle everything you hated about the DC Universe into a complete reboot of the continuity without explaining anything. The Justice League didn’t know each other. Superman wore Kryptonian Armor, Batman was able to snatch off Green Lantern’s Ring (meanwhile the Green Lantern Corps was unaffected by this reboot …) Anyway, it was a complete shit-show and I don’t use that term loosely.
Writers did whatever they could get away with. The DC Universe was dark and dismal and I think readers were so confused, it didn’t even make sense to try to remember anything about what happened before this era. Attempts at integration with the other 52 Universes, plus a map of the cosmology of the DC Universe was created including all of the previous Universal aspects such as the New Gods, the Monitors, the Vertigo Universe, Wildstorm’s Bleed, and anything else they could throw in the bowl.
Then the Convergence happened partially as an attempt to smooth out the problematic characterizations of the new Unsmiling DC Universe. This would fold back into the DC Universe, an extra Superman, presumably one from an earlier era of the DC Universe where they re-established Hypertime, the Super-Continuity in which every story which has ever existed in the DC Universe could theoretically still exist.
Problem solved. The Pre-Crisis Universe still existed in the Hypertime Mega-continuity. All of the other events, Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Post-Crisis Era, Zero Hour, Flashpoint, New 52, Convergence, and finally Rebirth, the last attempt to reboot the DC Universe could exist, no matter what the writers chose to focus on, in the future, the underlying nature of the DC Universe could always be reached through Hypertime.
Now they have added the Dark Multiverse underlying and opposite the main DC Multiverse where dark opposites to the DC Universe are waiting for their chance in the light and on the comic page. Then DC Writers destroyed the Source Wall, the impenetrable barrier protecting the current DC Universe from a previously hidden meta-Universe of beings related to the previous super-threats of the Monitor and the Anti-Monitor.
The Doomsday Clock
The destruction of the Source Wall led to the final transformation and analysis of the DC Universe called the Doomsday Clock. In the Doomsday Clock, the Watchmen’s Universe overlapped into the DC Continuity presumably through Hypertime, where everything that can happen in a DC Universe product can exist, allows Doctor Manhattan, the Watchmen’s singular superhuman entity whose god-like powers and cosmic awareness allowed him to cross over from his Universe to the mainstream Prime DC Universe.
It was his crossing over which allowed DC to examine what the DC Universe looked like with or without the existence of Superman. In a meta-conceptual storyline, it allowed DC to look at the numerous versions of Superman scattered across time, moving his timeline back and forward to see how his existence affected the nature of heroism in the DC Universe from the perspective of Doctor Manhattan whose temporal awareness gave him the ability to see and alter reality and study the results.
This series of stories is what I suspect DC will be using to revise their Universe one more time, in a fashion which resembles their failed DC Entertainment Universe. In this revamp Wonder Woman is the first superhero in the DC Universe appearing in the Man’s World prior to World War I and II.
The Four Eras
The official word on what is being called The Four Eras as reported in the Hollywood Reporter:
“The four eras are “Dawn of the Heroic Age” – which kicks off with Wonder Woman’s arrival from Themiscyra; “The Space Age,” which is marked by the arrival of Superman; “The Age of Crisis” which runs from Crisis on Infinite Earths through Flashpoint; and finally the “Flashpoint” era, which runs from the post-Flashpoint DC Universe and the “New 52″ through today.”
“We’re starting to figure out how continuity works,” DiDio said about the process, noting that reboots and complicated retcons are what happens when “things stop making sense.”
“Lee pointed out that the new official timeline doesn’t just formalize DC’s mythology as it currently exists, it also creates new story potential for creators. “There’s a lot of interesting implications that this timeline sets up,” he teased. “If this character came around back then, then what does that mean?” This might be an oblique reference to the placement of Wonder Woman as the first superhero in DC’s comic book mythology, the first time that has been the case. (In DC’s movie universe, she’s been the original superhero since 2017’s Wonder Woman.)”
What Does This Mean?
The Heroic Age: Presumably the revamp will establish Wonder Woman as the first hero, and will likely remodel the Golden Age heroes without Superman centered around the remodeled near-divine version of Wonder Woman. Since she is immortal there would be no need for her mother, Hippolyta to ever be Wonder Woman (which had been the explanation for the Golden Age version of Wonder Woman to date.)
The Space Age: This will likely be the revamped Universe into which space and science heroes will appear, including all of what we currently would call the Silver Age versions of heroes including Superman and modern versions of Batman. The revamp would likely have the largest population of heroes since it would be their attempt to reconcile every hero that has ever existed after the end of the Golden Age.
The Age of Crisis: Since the period of the Post Crisis DC Universe offered DC’s many attempts to create new heroes, and new versions of heroes, it is possible they will use this era to try and bring back interesting but not necessarily the most popular versions of the Justice League such as Justice League Europe, newer versions of heroes such as Booster Gold, Triumph, and other such experiments which may not have done as well as DC would have liked but managed to have their own fan base. This is also the birth of Hypertime, so it is likely to be explained as the backdoor to the previous DC Universes.
The Flashpoint Era: This era is an important boundary. Anything which appeared after the Flashpoint era includes most of whatever DC has called the New 52, Convergence, Rebirth and now their latest experiment called the DC Timeline.
This essay was a crash-course in whatever DC thinks they’re doing now, overlapped with what has happened before. Is this going to be better? I have no idea. Continuity in a Universe that is 85 years old, written and edited by thousands, would be challenging even if every writer and editor had perfect memory.
It is far less accurate when every writer and editor wants to establish their fingerprint on the Universe. Will this help readers? Probably not. It may help writers find their way by discarding previous continuity and making their own Universe in which ideas they don’t like, just don’t show up.
Buckle up. If you had a favorite character in the DC Universe, they are likely going to experience a significant reboot. Will it improve the overall flow and quality of the DC Universe? That is anyone’s guess but since 2011, they have rebooted the DC Universe three times. Do you feel like it’s gotten any better yet?
I don’t either.
The first appearances of DC’s New Timeline will be in Wonder Woman #750, due out January 22, followed by the similarly renumbered Flash #750 on February 26.
References and Other Sources
Here are two essays I wrote last year on alternative perspectives regarding DC Comics habit of rebooting their Multiverse and about various versions of Superman relating to the various eras of the DC Universe: