Given the amount of online grumbling I’ve seen online about the (admittedly) compressed five-year span of DC’s current “New 52″ timeline, I thought I’d write a series of posts about DC Comics’ various timelines. I’ll also cover the timelines’ pros and cons, as they cover various takes on how to handle fictional characters’ aging, and to what degree. (For my general overview of the different ways aging is handled in cartoons, see here.)
While there’ve been some minor modifications (such as the various Superman origin story re-tellings in the past decade alone), overall there’s four major timelines (or universes) as far as I’m concerned: the Golden Age (or “Earth-2″); the Silver/Bronze Age (“Earth-1″); Post-Crisis (as in “Crisis on Infinite Earths”); and the current “New 52” books.
I’ll start things off with the Golden Age/Earth-2 universe.
During the Golden Age proper, running from Superman’s debut in 1938′s “Action Comics” #1 through the early-to-mid 1950s, continuity wasn’t much of a concern for the most part, nor were issues such as aging of characters, etc. While the occasional book referred back to a previous story, and some changes gradually came about over time (such as the name of Clark Kent’s news paper changing from the “Daily Star” to the “Daily Planet”), for the most part, it seems comic books of the day lacked newspaper comic strips’ often-lengthy ongoing storylines. Perhaps a result of everyone getting newspapers on a daily basis, but not guaranteed to buy or even find comic books regularly? Or the higher stature regarded newspaper comic strips (over comic books) during the Golden Age? Or that newspaper comic strips are usually done by a single writer, and thus have more freedom for such extended storytelling/being self-consistent (versus the more “writing-by-committee” nature of mainstream comic books)?
Still, it seemed the attitude toward comic books and their characters was more in line with Bugs Bunny (“just a cartoon,” episodic done-in-one-issue stories) than, say, their comic strip counterparts (“Dick Tracy,” “Little Orphan Annie,” etc. allowed to have weeks-long storylines, etc.), aside from nobody aging, of course.
Years later, after the establishment of DC’s multiverse in the sixties, it was retroactively established that almost all of their Golden Age stories took place on “Earth-2,” as opposed to the then-modern universe of “Earth-1.” On top of this, earlier versions of various location/character names were assigned as being the Earth-2 versions. Thus, the Earth-2 Lois Lane worked for the “Daily Star,” not the “Daily Planet,” while the Earth-2 Batman’s butler was named “Alfred Beagle,” not “Alfred Pennyworth.” It’s generally assumed the shift to Earth-1 from Earth-2 retroactively occurred gradually over the course of stories during the 50s. For one analysis of when said shift from Earth-2 to Earth-1 occurred for the various continuously published characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Green Arrow, I’d recommend the website Mikes’s Amazing World of DC Comics.
Still, for this article’s purposes, the biggest aspect of Earth-2 is that it was declared to have largely took place in real time. Comics moving in real time are a rarity; “For Better or For Worse” is one strip that moved in real time during its original run, while “Doonesbury” now also largely moves in real time since the 80s. The advantage of real time is that it matches up with normal, real-world expectations; flashing back to, say, 1978 for us is the same as it was for the FBoFW (or original Earth-2) casts. Also like “For Better or For Worse,” this gave us Earth-2′s other popular trait, the characters being allowed to fully live out their lives, including visibly aging, dying, or getting married and having children (who also grew up/aged in real time). Flashbacks to earlier events on Earth-2 usually took real time into account, with Earth-2′s Clark shown having firmly grew up in the 1920s and early 30s (versus later incarnations of Clark’s childhood set on a sliding timeline).
Besides the original Golden Age comics, other major events of Earth-2 included the JSA’s retirement (due to McCarthyism) in 1951 (coinciding with their final published appearance), the 1950s-set wedding of Earth-2′s Superman and Lois Lane (soon followed by the wedding of Earth-2′s Batman and Catwoman), the JSA coming out of retirement in the early 1960s, and the debuts of the Huntress and Power Girl in the late 70s. Retroactively, the 80s series “All Star Squadron” also took place alongside the Golden Age comics.
Since Earth-2 moved in real time, starting with Superman’s 1938 debut, its timeline is the longest out of the four DC ones, stretching 48 years by the time “Crisis on Infinite Earths” finished up in 1986.
The advantages of “real time” have been outlined above; the main disadvantage of real time, however, is marketability, especially if a character were to go on to become popular. In mainstream pop culture, “youth sells,” and cartoon characters not usually aging is seen as one of their biggest assets. While this isn’t a concern for Earth-2 (since its Superman, Wonder Woman, etc. aren’t the “main” versions of the DC characters), it does see this handling of aging/timelines kept from being more widely used in pop cultural fiction set in the present (versus period pieces). Marketability’s a big reason the newly-revamped “Earth 2” in the current DC reboot has de-aged the Justice Society into their twenties, as well as cutting off their ties to historical events like World War II.
Next time: DC’s move to a “sliding timeline” starting with Earth-1 (and the Silver/Bronze Age).