I grew up a Marvel kid. I can absolutely tell you the names of every founding member of the New Mutants, or where Spider-Man went to college, or why the Avengers first got together. I knew about DC heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but I latched onto Marvel first (or maybe it latched onto me), so I never read a lot of DC comics, and that pattern continued through most of my life.
That’s not to say I didn’t give them a chance. My youthful comics obsession led me to check out pretty much every comic-related book in our local library (Dewey 741.5, baby!), which included a number of DC-oriented books. This was in the mid-to-late 1970s, when superhero comics still lacked the cultural cred (and numerous trade paperbacks) that would get actual stories stocked on public library shelves, but I checked out the Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman editions of the Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes several times each. Maybe the word “encyclopedia” got them in the door. Anyway, I dutifully read up, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that compared to my beloved Marvel heroes, the DC stable was just kind of… flat. Bland. Corny. And worst of all: silly. (The contemporaneous Super Friends cartoon, with its Wonder Twins and their super-monkey, surely didn’t help matters.)
What I didn’t realize back then was that DC was paying the price for blazing the trail. Those heroes had come along first, and by 1960 had become the Establishment against which Marvel rebelled, with their “real people and real problems” approach to superhero stories. In comparison, DC looked stodgy, and they were. Not only that, DC had learned to tread carefully in the wake of anti-comic hysteria and the Comics Code Authority. Their heroes were, in fact, flat, bland, and corny, to ensure that they would remain inoffensive and therefore not a target for any further congressional hearings. Not only that, the 1966 Batman TV series ushered in an arch, campy approach to masked heroics that drove the stories’ tone in the same direction. For a while, they got to explore territory that Marvel was (mostly) ignoring, but the Batman fad was short-lived and led to an even deeper crash.
Add to this the fact that they had already lived through one boom-and-bust superhero cycle. After Superman’s introduction in 1938, followed by Batman, The Flash, Wonder Woman, and others in the next few years, superheroes were big business in the comics industry, and DC (known at the time as National) had the vast majority of popular superheroes. They published many adventures of these marquee stars, and pulled them (as well as a number of lesser lights) into a supergroup called the Justice Society of America. Superheroes and groups like the JSA were the perfect American power fantasy at a time when the world seemed enmeshed in a stark good-versus-evil struggle, and they dutifully marched (or flew) off to fight Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini as well as the usual legions of scheming supervillains and ordinary crooks. However, after World War II ended, the country’s mood shifted, and superheroes seemed to lose their luster. By the late 1940s, DC had ceased publication of all but a few superhero titles. The Golden Age was over.
About a decade later, though, editor Julius Schwartz decided to give superheroes another try, with a revival of The Flash. The new Flash had a different identity, different costume, and different origin than the Golden Age Flash — about the only thing they had in common was the power of super-speed. Heartened by the story’s success, DC revived and revamped more heroes, and brought back the supergroup concept, though this time they were called the Justice League rather than the Justice Society. The stories caught on, and superheroes came charging back. The Justice League in particular inspired Stan Lee to try doing a supergroup his way, from whence sprang the Fantastic Four and the whole ever-lovin’ Marvel Universe.
In a brilliant move, Schwartz found a way to bring his Golden Age heroes into the new DC continuity, and once again The Flash was the key. In a 1961 story, Schwartz directed writer Gardner Fox to have The Flash “vibrate his molecules” (as it were), resulting in a sudden and unexpected teleportation into a parallel Earth. There on “Earth-Two”, he meets the Golden Age Flash, and the two of them team up to save the day before the newer Flash returns to Earth-One. The story was a smash success, and once again, success spurred expansion of the concept. So it was that a couple of summers later, DC published “Crisis on Earth-One!” and “Crisis on Earth-Two!”, a two-part story in the Justice League Of America comic, in which villains from Earth-Two find their way to Earth-One, defeating and imprisoning the JLA inside its own headquarters. Batman suggests that they conduct a seance, using a magic crystal ball left over from some other adventure, and from there they use the crystal ball to summon the JSA from Earth-Two! The two supergroups team up, defeat the villains, and set everything back to status quo.
The next summers brought “Crisis on Earth-Three!”, “Crisis on Earth-A!”, “Crisis Between Earth-One and Earth-Two!”, and so forth. Every summer, for years, some crisis prompted somebody to cross the “vibrational barrier,” and the JLA and JSA met to adventure across various alternate versions of the primary world. It quickly became clear that the DC Universe was no longer just a universe — it was a multiverse, teeming with parallel Earths. There was an Earth whose JLA was villainous, an Earth where the Nazis won World War II (featuring the Freedom Fighters, heroes acquired from the defunct Quality Comics), an Earth with the Charlton Heroes, an Earth with Captain Marvel and the Fawcett heroes, a post-nuclear-war Earth, an Earth where Superman was raised by apes, and so on, and on, and on. After a while, the concept had clearly become a victim of its own success. The surfeit of Earths was confusing, unfriendly to new readers, and, again, oftentimes just silly.
In 1985, DC decided to remedy these problems via a landmark 12-issue “maxi-series” called Crisis On Infinite Earths. Lots of stuff happened in this story, and it made such a big impression that despite the fact that there had been about a zillion story crises leading up to it, now when people say “Crisis” in reference to DC, what they mean is Crisis On Infinite Earths. Fans routinely refer to “pre-Crisis” and “post-Crisis” DC continuity. The biggest change of all was that it eliminated the multiverse. Due to the cosmic machinations of a Big Bad and a reality-shattering battle that ensues, all but five Earths get destroyed, and those get fused into one single Earth. The JLA, the JSA, the (Captain) Marvel family, the Freedom Fighters, and the Charlton Heroes all existed together, and none of them ever remembered having been apart. There were no more crises, because there was no more barrier to be crossed.
So it remained, for about 20 years. But big-business superhero comics are a cyclical milieu, and no possible attention-getting or moneymaking idea remains untouched forever. DC pulled in thriller author Brad Meltzer to write a dark, violent JLA story that he cleverly titled Identity Crisis. That story began a long “uber-crossover”, in which crossover events were no longer events, but rather one long mega-story along the spine of the DC universe, divided into major movements which sometimes piled atop one another, sometimes contradicted one another, and always tried to be ultimate and unmissable, with mixed results. Following directly on the heels of Identity Crisis was Infinite Crisis, in which characters from Crisis on Infinite Earths checked in on 20 years of story development, and were disappointed in what they saw. The resulting battle ended with Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman all taking a break from the hero business for a while. Of course, DC couldn’t exactly write their books without the main characters, so they invoked a time-jumping gimmick. Suddenly all the books were branded “One Year Later” — a year’s worth of continuity had elapsed and there were various changes in the status quo, but the heroes were back.
The story of the missing year is chronicled in 52, a yearlong, 52-issue series in which (as you may have deduced) a new issue was released every week. The biggest effect of 52 is that it undoes the major change of Crisis On Infinite Earths by restoring the multiverse, or at least a portion of it. Due to some stuff that happened during Infinite Crisis, and a rampage by a giant worm that eats time and space (no, really), the DC Universe was full of differing parallel Earths again. 52 of them, to be exact. (Funny coincidence, that.) And this, my friends, is where the Watchmen annotations finally come in, continuing their discussion of the Charlton heroes:
Completing the circle, in the 2007-2008-2009 DC Crossover series 52, Countdown to Final Crisis and Final Crisis, it’s established that Earth-4 is the new home of different versions of the Charlton Comics heroes homaged in Watchmen. Writer Grant Morrison notes that Earth-4’s Question owes a certain amount to Rorschach, while in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond (2 issue limited series, writer Morrison), the Captain Atom of Earth-4 looks and acts much more like Dr. Manhattan than he does any previous version of Captain Atom.
So, possessing very little of the background provided above, I read 52, Countdown To Final Crisis, and Final Crisis. I found them utterly bewildering. We pick up on various characters dealing with developments that are never introduced or explained, because they happened in other books. Characters arrive in dramatic splash pages, with zero explanation as to who they are. Moments of unexplained history get casually referenced, like the untranslated French or Latin phrases that used to pepper literary novels. It gave me a real sense of what it must be like for a new reader to try to pick up a Marvel comic and understand what the hell is going on. These big event comics are the most heavily advertised books in the business — and sometimes garner mainstream press due to killing off some character, or making somebody gay, or what have you — but they are the very worst books for a new reader to pick up, because they presume a graduate degree in fictional universe history. You’re far better off with a copy of Watchmen, in which every reader of Chapter 1 starts on equal ground. Ironically, these are the very sorts of problems that Crisis On Infinite Earths was written to alleviate, but today’s crossovers complicate rather than simplify their universes.
Lucky for me, learning more superhero stuff doesn’t exactly feel like a chore, so I read a lot of background material and then returned to the crossovers. This time they made more sense, though not complete sense. There’s still a whole lot I don’t know, and the works themselves vary pretty dramatically in quality. In particular, Countdown to Final Crisis is rather a mess, starting out as a mirror-image of 52 (another weekly series, but this time starting at #52 and ending at #1) but changing title halfway through, and (quite literally) pushing characters around on a chessboard without much regard for the accuracy, consistency, or integrity of their portrayals. However, there was also plenty of interesting stuff to be found in the various series, some of which relates pretty directly to Watchmen. From here on out, you’re in a spoiler zone for Watchmen and all DC crossovers.
First of all, despite the annotations’ suggestion that 52 is what established the Charlton heroes on Earth-4, that designation happened way back in Crisis On Infinite Earths. Issue #1 of Crisis appeared in April of 1985, a couple of years after DC had acquired the Charlton heroes, and a little over a year prior to the first issue of Watchmen. Crisis #1 marks the introduction of Blue Beetle as a DC character, and thus the introduction of Earth-4, though it isn’t named as such until issue #7. Of course, Earth-4 gets wiped out a few issues later, as cataclysmic events force the five surviving universes into one, combining the histories of different stables of heroes. That’s what brings the Charlton heroes into the DC universe, a fusion which wouldn’t have happened if Alan Moore had been allowed to use them for Watchmen. But since Watchmen ended up with original characters, The Question and the rest ended up in the DC universe. In fact, The Question ends up being one of the main characters of 52, but more about that in a bit.
So Crisis took up most of 1985 and the beginning of 1986. Watchmen started in the middle of 1986 and went through to the middle of 1987. In between landed Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, its beginning slightly overlapping the end of Crisis. Where Crisis was concerned with cleaning up the wacky mess that had been made of the DC Universe, Watchmen and Dark Knight wanted to interrogate the superhero genre itself, to reveal (among other things) the political, sexual, and moral implications of a world where people got dressed up in tights and punched each other. All three series were extremely popular, which meant that while Crisis made way for new stories, those new stories were ushered in by Dark Knight and Watchmen.
Unfortunately, many of the writers who followed in Miller and Moore’s footsteps did so based on a rather shallow reading of their work (especially Watchmen), taking the dark, oppressive atmosphere but leaving out the variety of viewpoints and the psychological depth. The result was a wave of “grim and gritty” comics. Formerly simon-pure heroes became morally grey. Already morally grey heroes got really morally grey, sometimes becoming outright villains, or at least crossing boundaries that were formerly sacrosanct. The hair, the muscles, the guns, and the shoulder pads all got a lot bigger. Violence, gore, and horror climbed steadily. What would the heroes of an earlier era think of what they had become? Infinite Crisis would dramatize the answer.
Infinite Crisis was conceived as a kind of sequel to Crisis On Infinite Earths, and a marker of its 20th anniversary. At the end of Crisis, a few characters had walked off stage: an alternate Superman & Lois Lane (from Earth-Two, making them the Golden Age versions of the characters), an alternate Superboy (from Earth-Prime, where he was the only superpowered person), and an alternate son of Lex Luthor (from Earth-Three, where alignments are reversed and his father was the sole superhero fighting evil versions of the Justice League.) They all went to a netherworld “heaven” outside the universe proper. In Infinite Crisis, we learn that they’ve been watching how Earth-One has developed (and perhaps devolved) since, and they eventually come to the conclusion that they made a terrible mistake leaving its heroes on their own. These personifications of the pre-Watchmen comics era decide that it’s time to turn back the clock, to return the world to its more innocent times.
But of course, the genie is out of the bottle, and they themselves are part of the post-Watchmen landscape. Superboy-Prime’s rage amps up and up with his frustration, and he ends up going completely berserk battling Earth-One Superboy and a bunch of Teen Titans. In a heated moment he actually decapitates some poor D-list superheroine (albeit accidentally.) Try finding that in a Silver Age comic. Similarly, Earth-Three Luthor turns out to be the evil mastermind behind the whole thing (a 180-degree pivot from his Crisis persona), ruthlessly kidnapping heroes and eventually smashing planets together trying to create the perfect Earth. Earth-Two Superman finally decides he’s fighting on the wrong side, and sacrifices his life to defeat Superboy-Prime.
Several times in the course of the story, the Crisis exiles claim that Earth-One is a corrupting influence, and that it has ruined its heroes. In the context of the story, we’re meant to understand that this is a delusion, and that those characters are, at best, tragically misguided. On the symbolic level, though, I wonder. Superhero comics really did change forever in the mid-eighties, and Watchmen was one of the prime reasons for that. Once that book took superheroes apart, something shifted between writers and audience. Part of it was writers chasing the enduring success of Watchmen by imitating it (often very poorly), but part of it was an audience for whom simple good vs. evil conflicts seemed to have paled. If Earth-One is the superhero mainstream, it truly is a different place now, and while people are still writing stories with that more innocent feel, they are exceptions and curiosities. Our heroes will never again be “big, brave uncles and aunties”, for better or for worse.
52 reinforces that point. With the superhero “Trinity” gone, and much of the rest reeling from the events of Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis, 52 weaves a story from multiple viewpoints, each of which explores the nature of heroism, much like another book I could mention. 52 is no Watchmen — for one thing it’s far more sprawling, and far, far less self-contained — but it does visit some corners of superheroism where Watchmen didn’t travel, or at least not much.
For instance, Watchmen treats superheroes as a strictly American phenomenon, but 52 casts its net wider. We see the Great Ten, a Chinese supergroup with names like “August General In Iron” and “Accomplished Perfect Physician.” The group finds itself autonomous from the rest of the superhero universe, as China signs the Freedom Of Power Treaty, which bans foreign superbeings from operating within its borders. Beyond that, one of the series’ major plot threads is the ascension of Black Adam (basically Captain Marvel’s evil twin) to the throne of the fictional Middle East country Kahndaq. Adam starts out as a ruthless dictator, but his brutality becomes tempered by love, and he empowers a former refugee to become his queen Isis. Of course, love interests are always in the comic-book crosshairs, so Isis dies and Adam goes berserk, murdering pretty much an entire country and decimating the army of superheroes which comes after him. It isn’t until Captain Marvel sneakily changes Adam’s magic word that the madness stops.
Thus is each book a product of its time. Watchmen was a British writer’s dystopia of American dominance granted by godlike superpowers, and the missiles that could fly when that dominance evaporates. 52 isn’t fretting about nuclear war, but it is quite anxious indeed about a rampant Middle East, its power unleashed in a fanatical campaign of revenge killing that slaughters the innocent population of a nearby country. It is surely no coincidence that the writing team of 52 is 75% American. (The other 25% is Grant Morrison of Scotland, about whom more in a moment.) While Watchmen envisioned the national god as detached and unemotional, as indifferent to humanity’s fate as an atom bomb, 52‘s national god is motivated by the deepest human sins — lust, wrath, pride. He is a nihilist, a terrorist.
52 also marks the final destination of the Denny O’Neil incarnation of The Question. Charles Victor Szasz dies of lung cancer, high in the mountains of Tibet, passing his mantle to an alcoholic and lost Gotham City detective named Renee Montoya. Szasz becomes Montoya’s mentor over the course of 52, always peppering her with the question, “Who are you?”, until she finally answers it by becoming the new Question. By this point, The Question was just the most recent of the Charlton characters to become unrecognizable or extinct. The Ted Kord Blue Beetle is killed in a one-shot called Countdown to Infinite Crisis (not to be confused with Countdown To Final Crisis). Captain Atom bounced back and forth between hero and villain several times, and at the point of Infinite Crisis had flipped into a different identity called Monarch, then gone AWOL into another dimension. Nightshade had joined a team called Shadowpact, which got written out of the DC Universe for a while simultaneous with the publication of 52. Peacemaker had died in an early 90s issue of Eclipso, and Thunderbolt never made much of impression on the DC Universe in the first place. 20 years of continuity past Watchmen had killed, erased, or transformed most of its inspirations.
Enter the new Earth-4. By the end of 52 there’s a new 52-world multiverse, and world #4 in this lineup is pretty clearly shown to contain versions of the Charlton characters, which hew much more closely to their original versions rather than the DC mutations. But they can’t really be the original versions, not in this post-Watchmen world. Grant Morrison says in a post-52 interview that the idea of this “Megaverse” was to allow DC a banquet of franchise opportunities — “If you miss Vic Sage as the Question, you should be able to follow the adventures of Vic’s counterpart on the Charlton/Watchmen world of Earth 4.” However, a few breaths earlier in that same interview, he avers that “If you think you recognize and know any of these worlds from before, you’d be wrong,” insisting that the concepts would be revamped and rethought.
Those imagined franchises never launched, so we didn’t get to find out what that new “Charlton/Watchmen” world was like. However, we do get a taste of Earth-4’s Captain Atom in another Morrison series, Final Crisis, or more specifically, an offshoot of it called Final Crisis: Superman Beyond. In that book, certainly one of the trippier superhero comics I’ve ever seen, Superman travels in the interstitial spaces between the 52 universes, a space the book calls “The Bleed.” He’s accompanied by four alternate supermen:
The last of these, “Air Force captain Allen Adam, the ‘quantum superman’ of Earth 4,” clearly owes far more to Alan Moore than to Steve Ditko. He is clothed, and he shares his name with Captain Atom, but otherwise he is straight-up Dr. Manhattan. He’s blue. He’s got the image of a hydrogen atom on his forehead. His size varies depending on necessity or mood. He says stuff like “Allow me to demonstrate quantum super-position as used defensively,” at which point he replicates himself into a bunch of duplicates. He also says this, to the super-evil antimatter Ultraman: “I am the endgame of the idea that spawned the likes of you, Ultraman. I am beyond conflict.”
Superman, Captain Marvel, Ultraman, and Overman are all the “mightiest mortal” of their respective earths. But quantum Adam is no mortal. He is, essentially, a god, and perhaps beyond good and evil, as a certain Mr. Nietzsche might say. But Morrison plants some seeds to problematize that notion as well. First, there’s the fact that Adam takes drugs to “dampen his quantum sense to acceptable levels.” Why would a god need to do such a thing, unless there were some human part of him, struggling to mitigate the full experience of divinity? Second, he does become a force for good in the end. He fuses Superman and Ultraman for a moment, releasing tremendous energy from the matter/antimatter blast. He does this in order help Superman obtain some “bottled Bleed” in order to save Lois Lane’s life, for which purpose Adam must obtain enough energy to “broadcast [Superman's] pure essence to a receiver in a higher dimension.” His final words in the series? “Only Superman can save us now.”
It’s tempting to think that Morrison’s version of Dr. Manhattan is partly Captain Atom, but I would suggest that in fact, Moore’s character has these same qualities. He is not beyond emotion — witness his freakout at the press conference when he is told that he caused Janey Slater’s cancer. As much as he pretends to be above emotion, he can be far from rational when under duress. Also, his insistence on keeping Veidt’s secret at the end, and his murder of Rorschach to ensure the secret would stay safe, suggests that (perhaps due to Laurie’s revelation on Mars) he still has a vested interest in protecting humanity.
Of course, almost immediately afterwards he departs our galaxy, just as Captain Adam in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond says, “I must return to my world.” But unlike Dr. Manhattan, we may see the “quantum superman” again — if 52 and its successors prove anything it’s that in the DC Universe, nothing ever ends.