Saturday, September 3, 2011

On the untapped potential of a world with seventy years of superheroes

Last time I talked about the past of Earth-Two. This time I'm going to talk about its future.

I've discussed it before - the "Sliding years" theory.  The idea that all the years of comic book adventures you've ever read of any character all took place in a far more compressed time period, and took place in the past few years, as opposed to the fixed point in the past when it was originally published.  Case in point - the Fantastic Four were first published forty years ago, but in the internal fictional timeline of the Marvel Universe, they haven't been active for that long.  Back in the 80's John Byrne opined the period was seven years; now, another couple decades later, it could be as much as twelve to fifteen years, as Grant Morrison has estimated for Batman's career.

For TV fans, look at this way - All the episodes of M*A*S*H, ten years of them, had to have all taken place during the three-year period of the Korean War.  So you have to (you should pardon the expression) mash events together - several of the Christmas episodes were all the SAME Christmas, for example, just different looks at different events.

In the new post Flashpoint world of the DCU, the period has been shrunk back to about five years.  So not only did a lot of the stories we've read not had time to happen, the world as a whole has barely had time to get used to the idea of superheroes, and be changed by them.

Depending on how old you are, think back to big things that happened to the world in the past, and how amazing they were, and how long it took the world to get used to them.  Stuff like the fall of the Berlin Wall, people on the moon, even the Internet; think about how the world changed to adapt, to add these events into its paradigm.  Five years isn't that long. There's still going to be people who are suspicious of superheroes, some who still think they're all a hoax.

Now envision a world that has had superheroes for seventy years.

Earth-2 is back, and with it, the Justice Society of America, who fought crime, and the Axis, in World War II.  In the old days, the all or nothing days, the Pre-Crisis Days, "Earth-Two" was that world - the JSA fought as far back as WWII, and never stopped.  Some people took up the job inspired by them, some heroes had kids who joined the family business, and generally, it was a very different world from the main Earth of the DCU.

That alone is a great reason to bring it back.  It's the opportunity to generate a parallel brand, in the way that Marvel has the Ultimate line, and the WWE have Raw and Smackdown.  Make them different enough, and you'll have fans of each one separately. One of the problem with the DCU is they've got so many great characters, there's no place to find a spot in the limelight.  It's EXACTLY why the WWE broke up their two shows.  Two champions, two rosters, twice the chance to rise to the top.  The Marvel Ultimate Universe is basically the same characters twice, with different histories and different stories being told about them.  Earth 1 and 2 can be ENTIRELY different worlds, with wholly different heroes. 

Assuming they don't get their own Superman again (and I hope they don't), who would be the most powerful hero of Earth-2?  My guess is, we haven't met him yet. And that's AMAZINGLY cool.  On the whole, save for Dr. Fate and The Spectre, the general power level of the Earth-2 heroes was quite a bit lower.  There were a lot more costumed humans than there were super-humans.  That was mainly because in the early days of comics, they simply hadn't stretched their imaginative wings far enough yet.  But if you take one of Dan Didio's comments to its extreme, if a less powerful Superman, one who could be injured, is more dramatic and exciting, than a normal human who chose to train a bit and put on tights can be even MORE dramatic, no?  We could see a lot more of that in a new Earth-2.

You know who would be PERFECT on Earth-2. Ted Fucking Kord.  On Earth-1, characters like Blue Beetle were utterly overshadowed by the top echelon on power. But on a more "Down-to-Earth" Earth?  He could be near the top.  So too characters like Gangbuster.

Let's think about the social effect  that the existence of seventy years of actual Superheroes would have on a world.  Consider - right now, in this world, becoming a superhero is officially the act of a crazy person.  And we have dozens of them.  On our Earth, you tell your parents you want to be a superhero when you grow up, they either pat you on the head, or take you to the psychiatrist.  On DCnU-Earth, they'd say, "One of those crazy people?  You'll break your neck!"  Say it on Earth-2, and they'll say, Well, you better drink your milk and finish your homework, they don't let lazy-bones in the Justice Society".  "Superhero" is a valid and viable career option

In the more educated to the concept audience that modern readers have, a really bold writer could take the alternate history to amazing lengths.  Roy Thomas was ever forced to come up with reasons why the JSA didn't all just to fly over to Germany and kick Hitler's ass. He created the magical barrier, created by the Spear of Destiny, which prevented the Amerikanisher Schweiner from entering the theater of war. 

Now, imagine a world where they could.  The war never got as far as it did, the A-bomb was never dropped. Aliens have been attacking earth for decades, and we collect up the technology, reverse-engineer it and advance humankind at quantum speed.  The present of Earth-2 might not be a Utopia, but it could be a very interesting place to be.

If DC brings back Earth-2 exactly as it was, how many readers is that going to attract?  Well, what was the print run of the last issue of JSA that came out last week?  THAT'S how many.  It's not going to pull any old-time fans back - the ones that want the JSA back that badly are still reading comics.

But a world that has had superheroes for almost a century, and has been growing and changing as a result of it for all that time?  A world lifted and changed, literally on the shoulders of heroes?  They can SELL that.

Friday, September 2, 2011

On the return of an old friend, and the six billion people living on it

Earth-Two. Say it to an older comic fan (raises hand) and watch their eyes well up.

When superhero comics first appeared in the 40s, heroes from the three companies that eventually became DC Comics teamed up and formed the Justice Society of America.  The team appeared till the end of 1950, when the superhero genre as a whole started to wither, save for the "Trinity" characters, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, who kept right on going.

Six and change years later, DC decided it was time to bring the superheroes back. But rather than revive the existing characters, they chose to create new ones with the same names and similar powers.  They started with The Flash, in Showcase #4.  As a tip of the hat to the characters of the past, it was revealed that the new Flash, Barry Allen, read The Flash comics, and that was why he was inspired to become a superhero, as opposed to, I dunno, getting to a doctor and having himself checked out after getting doused with chemicals and lightning.

That's a facet of Barry Allen that gets rather short shrift today - he was a comics fan.  He read and collected comics, and was inspired to do good by them.  More than ever before, this was a hero fans could identify with.

Showcase did very well, and a continuing Flash title soon followed, as did new "Silver Age" versions of lots of other characters.  And a very interesting thing happened.  DC started getting letters from readers who wondered what had happened to those older characters, and if they could see them again.  This rather surprised DC, who assumed that the comics readership was  constantly rotating, and that in the past six years all the old readers had long since moved on.

So they had a brainwave.  In keeping with the more science-based motif of the new books, they explained that the adventures of the heroes of World War Two took place on a parallel earth, like ours in many ways, but with a slightly different history, namely with superheroes appearing in the pre-WWII era.  They even had their own "Trinity" heroes, which neatly explained how Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman could have fought Hitler and still look just the same in the mid-50s.

So Barry Allen met Golden-Age Flash Jay Garrick in the nigh-legendary "Flash of Two Worlds", and started a tradition that would last twenty years.  Soon the entire Justice League of America met their Earth-Two counterparts, the Justice Society, and would every year for decades.

They didn't stop there.  Earth-Three was an evil opposite of the other earths, with the super-powered denizens their worst criminals.  As other companies' comics characters were purchased over the years, they usually got their own Earth, to explain how their adventures could have happened.  The Quality Comics characters like The Ray and Phantom lady were put on Earth-X, another "Alternate History" Earth, one where World War Two was still raging into the eighties, which gave their heroes, the Freedom Fighters, a chance to keep doing contemporary stories against the Nazis.  When DC licensed the Fawcett characters, They ended up on Earth-S, for "Shazam".  The Charlton characters got their own earth for all of five minutes or so, as it was introduced and destroyed mere pages apart in Crisis in Infinite Earths.

Crisis (so important is it in DC History, it can universally be spoken of as a single capitalized word) was intended to "simplify" the "Complicated" history of the DCU.  The whole multiple Earth thing was seen as daunting to new readers, which the company certainly wanted to attract.  So Crisis wiped the slate clean.  There was now only ONE Earth, upon which the JSA fought during WWII (albeit without Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman), and some decades later, modern heroes appeared, some bearing the same names as the earlier heroes.

Of course, that meant that a great number of stories no longer "happened", or happened with different details.  Many events happened at a different period, and indeed, even Crisis, which we'd just read, was now substantially different in continuity than as we'd just read it.

Sound familiar?

The JSA was the biggest casualty of the event.  Aside from being slapped into a history they never made, it was decided that the characters were too old for the readership, and in a story released around the same time as Crisis, they volunteered to fight an eternal battle in a magic dimension to stave off Ragnarok.

I don't know how "complicated" the idea of parallel worlds is, especially to a reader of comics and science fiction. I first learned about Earth Two when I was seven, specifically in Flash #229.  It was explained in one panel, and it made PERFECT sense. I didn't know who who this "Jay Garrick" jasper was, but the idea of a whole 'nother Earth full of heroes was amazingly cool, and sealed me to DC even more.  I mean, Marvel just had the ONE Earth, and everyone on it seemed so...depressed.

(Dig the way they drew Earth-Two for a while, with the land and sea-masses reversed.  I can only imagine the ecological nightmare of an earth with twice as much land as water...)

After just about the same period of time as their last break from action, the JSA were brought back again and given a new series which was VERY quickly cancelled, to the surprise of the fannish community.  They were then soundly put down in a later event, Zero Hour, Crisis in Time, where a number of them were killed in battle.

But you can't keep a good team down.  After yet ANOTHER event, Infinite Crisis, the team was revived again, this time under the hand of James Robinson, and shortly thereafter, one Geoff Johns. 

Immediately after Infinite Crisis, a weekly title, 52, made the revelation that parallel Earths were back.  Not the full-blown multiverse of the past, but a set of 52 Earths, most of which have been identified.  They're not the SAME worlds of the pre-Crisis multiverse, but many are very similar.  There's a version of the Marvel Family on Earth 5 (instead of "S") alternate versions of the Charlton heroes on Earth 4, and the Quality characters on Earth 10 (instead of "X", the Roman numeral for 10), also featuring Nazi versions of other DC heroes. 

Note that while the Pre-Crisis Earths were spelled out, the "Post 52" Earths use numbers.  That was a deliberate choice to show the difference between the two versions.

And there's an Earth-2, which features a different version of the JSA from the one on the "main" earth, alternately known as either New Earth or Earth-0.  It had the most similar history to its pre-Crisis counterpart. It looked for all the the world to be the Pre-Crisis Earth-Two a world in which the timeline continued on after Crisis. A story Geoff Johns wrote for the JSA annual had Power Girl return there, and we got a look at what looked essentially like Earth-Two would have looked like if it had survived Crisis.  tantalizing, to say the least.

Well, now there's been one more event, Flashpoint, and this time, the JSA have been wiped off the board entirely.  The first superheroes in the world are the modern versions of Superman, Batman, Green lantern, et al, and what's more, even their histories only go back five years.

Fandom's reaction was white-hot and brutal.  Fans were not ready to let these characters get taken away again.  But never fear; DC wasn't going to wait another six years this time.  Even before the book in which the reboot happened could be released, DC announced that the JSA would indeed be back, in a new project written by James Robinson, and drawn by Nicola Scott.

But didn't they just get finished telling us that the JSA was gone from the new history?  Yep.  The JSA were moving back to their traditional home, Earth-2.

I'll lay odds some folks wept openly.

But here's the question I've been asking...Is it going to be Earth-2...or Earth-Two?

Either way, it's going be a fun adventure.

In part two of this rambling I'm going to talk about how if they play their cards right, and take advantage of the opportunity of a blank slate, Earth-2 could end being DC's Ultimates universe.