Rebooted Timelines

…continued from Fictional Canon: What Counts?
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RELAUNCHED, REBOOTED, AND BEWILDERED

We’ve already discussed the function of the Real Batman Chronology Project and its very reason for existence by dipping our toes into the concept of fictional canon and peeking at how it pertains to superhero comics. It’s easy to see how difficult it is to build a single coherent and functional timeline. But, to make matters worse, Batman actually has multiple canonical timelines. This isn’t simply due to Batman’s long publishing history or different media outlets, which are only part of the justification, but more-so due to DC’s major reboots. (Reboots are when the company decides to scrap everything and start over from scratch, usually via a big crossover story-arc event that acts as a Jonbar hinge. Except they never really start over from scratch. Tons of old story gets folded into the “new continuity” and this happens in very interesting ways, which we’ll address in our next section.)

Superhero continuity, as defined by journalist Abraham Riesman, is “the sum of all the stories about every character in a given fictional universe.” Riesman explains, “What Superman does in one issue can be referenced 20 issues later; what Batman does in one story arc might affect what happens to Wonder Woman in another. As decades of tales roll on, continuity becomes more and more byzantine. To understand a new story, you often need to be familiar with a pile of existing continuity, which presents a dauntingly high bar for a newbie. It has been attempts at treating that chronic illness that compelled DC to initiate its many line-wide reboots.” Sure enough, DC has indeed initiated reboots in the past, having reset its characters roughly every twenty-five years since the company took off in the late 1930s. (Only more recently has DC broken from its normal MO and jumped the gun on rebooting before the twenty-five year mark.) Since reboots influence reader experience and the actions of authors (in relation to canon) more than anything else, one must have prerequisite scrutable knowledge about them to fully understand Batman’s multiple timelines and continuity in general. Let’s take a gander at the history of DC’s reboots.

Superman debuted in 1938 and Batman in 1939, essentially starting DC Comics’ shared narrative universe—and the Golden Age of comics. In the 1950s, DC wanted a fresh start with a new type of modern hero. Thus, the Silver Age was born. However, unlike a total line-wide reboot, DC staggered this reboot title-to-title, which gives the Silver Age reboot a debatable starting point. The Silver Age start-date technically can be plotted anywhere from the mid Fifties to the mid Sixties, depending on how you look at it. I won’t get into those nitty-gritty details, but I’ve written about the Silver Age relaunch extensively on my website if you are interested in learning more. Essentially, DC rebooted approximately twenty-five years after it started. This uniquely created (or, rather, retroactively revealed the existence of) two main Earths: The characters that started in the late 30s and early 40s (now older and semi-retired) continued on Earth-2 while the rebooted rookie versions got the main focus on DC’s primary line featured on Earth-1. Multiple Earths meant the existence of multiple universes i.e. a multiverse. Thus, superhero world-building had a fictive metaphysico-theologic-cosmology (and/or ontological) foundation that lives on to this very day. Every character lives in a universe in a multiverse in an omniverse—and all of the aforementioned hierarchical bodies all exist on a single shared timeline. Every time reboots occur, this all gets rebooted together.

Almost as if on cue, roughly twenty-five years after the initial multiverse revelation, the seminal Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover was published in 1986, collapsing the existing multiverse and rebooting it all into one new unified Earth where all characters had a new shared history, which was slowly meted-out bit-by-bit over the course of the following decade. This is the dawn of the Modern Age of superhero comics.

After this, DC had a handful of soft-reboots: 1994’s Zero Hour, 2003-2004’s Superman: Birthright, 2006’s Infinite Crisis, and 2009-2010’s Superman: Secret Origin. Up to this point, we’ve been purely addressing hard-reboots i.e. major overhauls that restart an entire comic line’s continuity “from scratch.” A soft-reboot—also sometimes called a “relaunch”—can be defined as a company overhaul or marketing campaign that resets storytelling themes, issue numbering, or narrative status-quo (as opposed to reseting continuity). Sometimes soft-reboots start out intended to be hard reboots, but then editorial cold feet leads to an annulment where changes are drastically or quickly reverted back to what they were before. Due to industry debate over the definition of a reboot, so you’ll often annoyingly (and confusingly) see “relaunch” interchangeably used with “reboot,” though this is technically incorrect. Zero Hour, Superman: Birthright, Infinite Crisis, and Superman: Secret Origin are all worth mentioning, but they aren’t important for our discussion at hand, so we’ll skip them for now.

Twenty-five years after the original 1986 Crisis, Flashpoint brought about the third major reboot (don’t call it a relaunch) in the history of the DC Universe. In 2011, with Flashpoint, DC rebooted yet again into its New 52 era. For various reasons, including negative fan response, DC abandoned the New 52 concept in 2017, rebooting to the current Rebirth Era.[1] Columnist/reviewer Keith Callbeck even goes so far as to refer to the post 2011 rebooted DCU as the “DCU 3.0,” making the post 1986 rebooted DCU the “DCU 2.0” and the original Silver Age DCU the “DCU 1.0.” Heidi MacDonald of “The Beat” echoes Callbeck, but more appropriately numbers the original Silver Age DCU as “DCU 2.0,” since it comes from the first reboot and is therefore the second DCU. The Golden Age is “DCU 1.0.” According to that same logic, the New 52 is “DCU 4.0” and the Rebirth Era is “DCU 5.0.”

For the intents and purposes of the Real Batman Chronology Project, I will refer to the classical comic book ages that were born from line-wide continuity reboots—the GOLDEN AGE (1938-1960), the SILVER AGE (1960-1986), the MODERN AGE (1986-2011), and NEW AGE/CURRENT AGE (2011-the present). (Specifically for DC, the New Age/Current Age began with “The New 52” from 2011 to 2017, after which the Rebirth Era began.)

Batman wasn’t around until the Golden Age of comic books, but before that there was the so-called PRE-MODERN AGE (or PLATINUM AGE, VICTORIAN AGE, or PULP AGE), which has its roots in the mid nineteenth century, ending in 1938. In a sense, this “first ever comic book reboot” began with the creation of Superman and Batman at DC at the end of the 1930s. Scholar Ken Quattro has also coined the term NASCENT AGE to describe the period between 1933-1938, which either replaces or overlaps with the end of the Pre-Modern Age. According to Quattro, 1933 was the first year that the format of comic books began to resemble what they would look like in the Golden Age and beyond.

In 1938, Superman was born and the Golden Age (1938-1960, roughly) started off with a bang. Batman was created a year later, cementing the new era. Ken Quattro has labeled the end of the Golden Age as the GENRE AGE or CODE ERA, reflecting the late 1950s boom of EC’s horror line, horror’s influence on the medium as a whole, and the subsequent Comics Code Authority being created in response. The official end of the Golden Age is highly debatable since the beginnings of the Silver Age have a wide-range of possible starting points. We will now briefly examine that wide range.

The starting point for the Silver Age is highly debatable. Most place the start of the Silver Age somewhere between 1954 and 1964. Many different (and valid) arguments can be made supporting various starting points within that time frame. One can split the subsequent Silver Age into subsections: The early years of the Silver Age being the SILVER AGE PROPER (1960-1971, roughly) versus the later portion being the BRONZE AGE (1971-1986). Writers Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs have goofily referred to the Bronze Age as the AWKWARD AGE—a sort of transitional era from Silver Age to Modern Age. Ken Quattro often refers to the Bronze Age as the NEO-SILVER AGE. Newsman Jim Curtin referred to the entire Silver Age as the SECOND GOLDEN AGE, speaking specifically of the rise of Marvel Comics during this time period. Likewise, Keith Callbeck lists the entire Silver Age as “DC 1.0,” referring to the fact that its in-story continuity took place primarily on the DCU’s Earth-1 and also that the Silver Age reboot started what was to become a more continuity-driven type of storytelling within the industry as a whole, hence a sort of “Continuity 1.0.”

Likewise, one can also split the Modern Age (1986-2011) into subsections: The early years of the Modern Age in the late 1980s being the IRON AGE, DARK AGE, or COPPER AGE where comics became more “adult-themed” and darker in general; the CHROMIUM AGE, GILDED AGE, or IMAGE AGE of the 1990s, named after Image Comics and the subsequent style that permeated all companies in that decade—which was then followed by the bubble bursting in 1996 and the steady decline of the industry for five years until…; the DYNAMIC AGE from 2001 to 2011 where DC and Marvel began branching out with more forward-looking, diverse storytelling by contracted big-name talents. Keith Callbeck, naturally following his own logic, lists the entire Modern Age as “DC 2.0,” referring to the fact that the original Crisis erased the old “Continuity 1.0” to replace it with a brand new “Continuity 2.0.” The New 52 Batman Wiki site refers to the period between the original Crisis and Zero Hour (1986-1994) as the SIGMA TIMELINE. A few other names attributed to the later Modern Age canon: the DOWNLOADABLE TORRENT AGE (as half-jokingly named by Mike Sterling); the FAN-FICTION AGE (as angrily named by Alan David Doane); the ZERO TIMELINE (a post Zero Hour name coined by The New 52 Batman Wiki site); the POLYBAG AGE (not attributed to anyone specifically); and the FINAL AGE (also not attributed to anyone specifically).

And the NEW AGE or CURRENT AGE of comics (as I like to call it) began in the early 2010s—for DC, with its huge “New 52” hard-reboot in 2011, and for Marvel, with its “NOW!” soft-reboot in 2012. Both DC and Marvel ushered in this era with a repurposed focus on nostalgia, even darker themes, decompressed continuity, and mega event crossovers. (Although, these themes were in a state of flux from 2011 to 2018 with each change seeming like a response from upper-management to the direct market, feeling out what audiences would go for or reject. In 2015, Marvel’s “All New, All Different” relaunch brought about lighter and more heterogeneous fare, although it soon abandoned prioritization of diversity in favor of an over-saturation of crossovers and near-constant/subsequent overhauls akin to how TV shows have new seasons each year. Marvel, like an addict that can’t get enough of a dangerous fix, stuck to its TV-style schedule, relaunching again in both 2017 and 2018.) But getting back to DC: In 2015, the company’s line-wide storytelling shift, entitled “Rebirth,” brought the company’s orientation back to continuity-driven legacy-focused storytelling, but with added diversity. 2017 unbelievably brought a change to the predictability of DC’s hard-rebooting calendar, delivering an abrupt line-wide reboot with its “Superman Reborn” arc, kickstarting the Rebirth Era. But that is a discussion we should save when we reach the end of the New 52 chronology.

The New Age/Current Age has several different names: The NEW GOLDEN AGE (as claimed by Douglas Wolk); the SECOND GOLDEN AGE (conceived by Paul Levitz); the BOUTIQUE AGE (as labeled by Ken Quattro); the MEGA-CORPORATE AGE (as labeled by Charles Hatfield); and the PRISMATIC AGE (as defined by Duncan Falconer of the Mindless Ones blog—and backed by Andrew Kunka, Grant Morrison, Véronique Emma Houxbois, Vaneta Rogers, Andrew Hickey, and Marc Singer).[2] And as before, Keith Callbeck calls the New 52 “DC 3.0,” referring to the fact that Flashpoint erased the old “Continuity 2.0” to replace it with a brand new “Continuity 3.0,” which was then replaced by “Continuity 4.0” a few years after that. That brings us to where we are now. As I was emphasizing, for the purposes of this site, these subdivisions and alternate names will be ignored. I will focus on the typical Golden Age, Silver Age (Bronze Age included within), Modern Age, and a divided-up New 52 and Rebirth Era.

By catering to this complex history of reboots, which Geoff Johns refers to as “the metaverse,” it might seem as though DC is acting exclusionary and doing itself a disservice by making things so convoluted and sprawling. While knowledge of this history is essential if you want to track canon or continuity, it doesn’t need to be understood or even known to simply enjoy the comics. They stand on their own—you can pick up a collected trade paperback and read a totally inclusive story that begins, has rising action, a climax, and denouement. But the beauty, especially for me, is that if you already like comics, then knowing about this history will only serve to augment your enjoyment.

But all this talk about authorship and implementation, and we haven’t mentioned how the characters themselves are impacted by reboots. How does Batman (the man himself) experience something as prodigiously transfigurative as a reboot? Bertrand Russell, in his 1921 masterpiece The Analysis of Mind, sums it up perfectly by supposing that the planet might only have been created a few minutes ago, furnished with a humanity that “remembers” an illusory past. As per Jorge Luis Borges in Tlön (1940), this ostensible negation of time demonstrates that “the present is indefinite, the future has no reality other than as present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory.” Or, from another perspective, again from Borges, we could say that all time has already transpired and one’s life is “only the crepuscular and no doubt falsified and mutilated memory.” These Borgesian concepts, especially the latter, are really exactly how characters within the world of the superhero genre experience (or rather don’t experience) reboots. For Batman, when a reboot happens, all his memories become nothing but a “mutilated” historical record that reflects an “illusory past.” Of course, Batman wouldn’t have anyway of knowing. And, if he were to even catch a slight wind of this—as he sometimes actually does in the comics—it would be far to much for him to fully decode. If you are looking for a less academic but equally heady explanation of how fictional characters experience reboots, look no further than David Wong’s John Dies at the End (2001). Despite the novel’s steady stream of sophomoric comedy, it also captures these ideas very well. Scientists, philosophers, and writers have long tackled these metaphysics, not just in regard to the fictional element, but also as a way of trying to understand the cosmic nature of reality as well. As Borges reminds us in A New Refutation of Time, some Buddhist texts say that the world annihilates itself and reappears six thousand five hundred million times a day. Who knows, maybe we’ve been rebooted more often than we can count—and more often than Batman.
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Our next section will detail my process when it comes to creating timelines. Click on the following link to read Building Timelines for Dummies.
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ABOUT THE SITE CREATOR/PROJECT MANAGER:

Collin Colsher is a writer, filmmaker, teacher, and comic book scholar that currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He is the creator of The Real Batman Chronology Project and disCONTINUITY. Collin also serves on the jury for the annual Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize, which is sponsored by the US Library of Congress.
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  1. [1]COLLIN COLSHER: In 2014-2015, Grant Morrison put out a series called The Multiversity, in which he took DC’s NON-FICTIONAL publication history that I just told to you about and turned it into FICTIONAL CANON. While The Multiversity was a follow-up to Morrison’s previous meta-dabbling-with-fictional-canon story Final Crisis, The Multiversity went even deeper down the rabbit hole and entered much wilder territory. We are talking never-before-achieved-or-attempted levels of meta-meta-meta-narrative being reached. Not long after, Geoff Johns—in the pages of Justice League Vol. 2 (2015), DC Universe: Rebirth (2016), and Doomsday Clock (2018-2019)—pulled off similar narrative maneuvers and garnered equally amazing ultra-meta results. Jeff King attempted a similar feat with Convergence, but his 2015 arc failed to achieve the heightened level of sophistication, understanding, or general deference for fictional canon as the works of Morrison or Johns. Obviously there’s more to say, but that is a topic for another discussion!
  2. [2]COLLIN COLSHER: The Prismatic Age, as Véronique Emma Houxbois says, is “a period in which superheroes are defined not so much in comparisons to each other, but in relation to multiple iterations or derivatives of themselves.” The Prismatic Age also revolves around mash-ups—not just the mashing-up of characters (which had been done to death in the 1980s-1990s), but also the mashing-up of continuities, histories, genres, and styles. This includes storytelling that is referencing references of references, which are in turn references of references themselves. You get it. While certainly existing as the epitome of superhero comics starting in 2011, the Prismatic Age actually has its roots well before that. Kurt Busiek’s Astro City (1995), all of Warren Ellis’ oeuvre since Stormwatch (1996), most of Alan Moore’s oeuvre since Supreme (1996), most of both Mark Waid’s and Grant Morrison’s oeuvre since the late 90s, most of Mark Millar’s work since taking over for Ellis on The Authority (2000), Brian K Vaughan’s Ex Machina (2004), and Gail Simone’s Welcome to Tranquility (2007) come to mind as Prismatic titles before the actual christening of the age proper. The Mindless Ones Blog is quick to point out that “Reign of the Supermen” (published way back in 1993) is Prismatic as fuck. Basically, comic book era taxonomy has always been (and continues to be) far from an exact science.

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