There are big changes coming to the DC Universe. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, as DC continuity is always in flux, something recently illustrated in the pages of Doomsday Clock, which introduced the concept of a “metaverse” that allows for events of the past to shift as new stories are told. But still, superhero history can be tricky to navigate, and DC Comics is looking to clarify it all with a new timeline.
Comic book time is a historically fluid affair, operating on a “sliding scale” that allows characters to age only at the pace necessary for the story (if at all), and very few characters are tied to specific dates in history. DC Comics continuity has generally avoided “fixing” its characters to particular points of the past, with notable exceptions for those who were necessarily of their era, like various Western heroes (Jonah Hex, Bat Lash) or the Justice Society of America, whose early adventures take place between approximately 1939 and 1950. It was generally considered that the “modern age” of DC superheroes was roughly a decade old, and everything else moved around the timeline accordingly. But with the post-Flashpoint reboot of the entire DC Universe in 2011, the traditional Justice Society were removed from the “main” DC Earth in favor of a new timeline in which superheroes had only existed for the last five years.
Since 2016’s Rebirth relaunch of the entire DC line and in the pages of The Flash, Doomsday Clock, and Justice League, the original JSA have started to reappear in the DCU, once again establishing that superheroes have been around since at least the 1940s. To further solidify this reclaimed continuity, DC is creating a comprehensive timeline of major events in DCU history, the first of its kind in roughly a decade, and apparently the most significant continuity-shaping effort since 1994’s continuity altering Zero Hour event.
“When we launched the New 52 there was a lot of great excitement that came along with that,” Dan Didio told the DC Nation panel at NYCC. “For us, it helped validate a lot of things we knew. There’s a large fanbase that loves our characters and they were looking to come in at a place where they were interesting, exciting, and new and fresh. But what might have slipped up was that while we started everything brand new, when we started getting deeper in, we didn’t spend the same amount of time as we did at the start to figure out what worked into continuity and what didn’t.”
Two key complaints about the New 52 era were the loss of legacy characters like Wally West, and the question of what “happened” in the newly compressed timeline and what didn’t. Issues of legacy (and hints about the timeline) were addressed in 2016’s DC Universe: Rebirth special, and Didio told the NYCC crowd they’re ready to solve the rest.
“We know that what’s important about comics is that immersive sense of what the world is, what’s going on, and how it all works together,” Didio said. “When we see things happening in film and television where they’re building universes, and if we’re not doing it in comics, the place that inspired them, then we seem like we’re failing. So we’re starting to figure out how the DC line works a little bit better now.”
This doesn’t mean that yet another reboot of DC Comics continuity is in the cards. Instead, it sounds like DC will continue their tradition of simply revealing new elements of history or slightly reshuffling chronology as needed, without the need for a New 52-style hard reset. In the wake of Rebirth, DC revealed that Wally West had a career with Barry Allen, a past with Dick Grayson, and a history with the Titans, all of which (including the main era of the Titans itself) had merely been forgotten. Recent events in the pages of Doomsday Clock and Justice League have reintroduced the Justice Society both to continuity and in their original era, while in the pages of Superman, the Legion of Super-Heroes (albeit a rebooted version, to be fair) made their return.
“The whole idea here right now is from our standpoint we are trying to organize our stories in a way that makes cohesive sense from beginning to end, from the start of DC Comics to today,” Didio said. “This timeline will build a continuity that makes sense across all our characters, showing when they were first introduced, how they interact with each other in one big story that will be the basis for all DC Comics for the future…What you see right now is a story that will be consistent, because ultimately, when you guys get all upset or concerned about reboots and restarts, those things occur because the stories stop making sense and the continuity basically slows down our storytelling and nothing’s being done at the same style or pace.”
To keep things on track, DC continuity has been split into “generations.” An intricate spreadsheet was flashed on the NYCC screens that identified four generations of DC storytelling, and hinted at what’s to come.
Perhaps the biggest reveal was that Generation 1 begins not with Superman, but with Wonder Woman. “When Wonder Woman arrives in the United States, that starts our storytelling,” Didio said, before joking, “Oh wait, I don’t remember reading that.”
It’s true. Diana has never been considered the starting point for DC superheroes, with that honor traditionally going to either Superman or the JSA. But making Wonder Woman DC’s first major costumed hero makes sense, especially given the success of the first Wonder Woman movie, which placed her first appearance during World War I. From the spreadsheet shown on the screen, the Justice Society would form shortly after (and recent events in Justice League place their formation in 1940, roughly around the time of their first publication). Generation 1 appears to end with the disbanding of the Justice Society, but it was tough to get a good look.
“The start of the second generation is the advent of the modern age of heroes, when Superman first appears,” Didio said, before joking “wait a minute, I don’t remember reading that either!” Whatever DC has planned, it seems like key moments in DC history will be explored once this full timeline is revealed.
Generation 2 also looks like it includes the formation of the Justice League, the discovery of the multiverse, the rise of Robin, Batgirl, and the Teen Titans, and all the way through Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Generation 3 appears to include the post-Crisis years, including massive, status quo changing events of the ‘90s and early 2000s like the death of Jason Todd in Death in the Family, the Death of Superman, Grant Morrison’s JLA run, and others, before ending with Flashpoint.
This isn’t comprehensive and is only what I could spot at a distance on the screens. And it should be made clear that these “generations” aren’t tied to the eras in which their stories were published. In other words, even though Generation 3 includes stories published between 1986 and 2011, the events themselves almost certainly all took place within the last 5-10 years of DC Comics time. The “sliding scale” of comics time will apply to everything other than the characters and events (such as the formation of the JSA) that they feel are essential to their era.
During other interviews at New York Comic Con, I tried to get notable DC creators to spill some details about the timeline. They were understandably and diplomatically vague.
Joshua Williamson, the architect of the Flash’s past and future since 2016, had this to say when asked if he had considered the new timeline when crafting The Flash: Year One, “I think next year you’ll see where things start to line up, and there’s things that will tie back into The Flash: Year One that you’ll see were left behind on purpose,” Williamson says. “There were little clues in there, these little clues I’ve been planting in the book for a long time, so you’ll see it will all add up eventually.”
Recently, Justice League even reintroduced the Will Payton version of Starman, not as a contemporary hero, but one who was first active in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In other words, roughly the period when he was first published in a comic series by Roger Stern and Tom Lyle. Justice League, written by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV, has been re-establishing the very rules and core concepts of the DC Universe from the outset, and hints of DC’s new timeline can be found there.
“The biggest thing that we can say is we’re right in the midst of the biggest story that we’ve told, and all of the threads that we’ve been playing with the start of Dark Nights: Metal are starting to converge and hit in this really, really big way,” Tynion says. “We have lots more answers to a lot of these questions that we really can’t get into. We want people speculating, we want people wondering what we’re building and all of that, because we’re building something that I think long-term fans of the DC Universe and new fans of the DC Universe are going to be thrilled by. The stories that we’re telling are some of the most exciting work that I’ve done since joining DC Comics eight years ago. It’s freaking amazing working with Scott and bringing it all to life.”
We’ll have more from Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, and Joshua Williamson about their corners of the DC Universe in the coming days.
(Thanks to Jim Dandy for helping me keep all this straight!)