For the last few years, DC Comics’ universe of interconnected superhero titles have been embroiled in a rolling series of crossovers and events, each supposedly redefining or recreating what has come before, and changing the status quo of the comic book universe as it exists. Starting with Identity Crisis, which had such family fun as Elongated Man’s wife’s murder and the revelation of her rape at the hands (well, you know) of a goofy villain, the comic company has been inundating readers with massive storylines that weave in and out of miniseries, regular series and now two 52-issue weekly series. Every time you turn around, DC Comics is announcing a new spin-off or crossover that you MUST! READ! to get the full story. The latest weekly comic event, Countdown, apparently can’t even hold the main storyline in 52 issues and has already begun branching out into other one shots and miniseries.
Where does it all end? There are two answers: one is it ends when the fans wise up and stop pouring their money into the sinkhole known as DC Comics. The other, official answer, is next May, when Final Crisis begins.
Here’s a touch of history for those of you unfamiliar with the insanity of comic books. Once upon a time, DC Comics published superhero stories in the 30s and 40s. When superhero books became less popular in the 50s, many of the characters were retired from their books and mostly only Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman trekked on. Then in the 60s superheroes took off again, and DC introduced new versions of some of their old characters – there had been a guy with a pie plate on his head called The Flash once, but in the 60s they revamped the character and made him a totally new guy. Nobody cared, because back then you read comics and threw them away when you were done – plus, these characters had stopped publishing decades earlier, and most people gave up reading comics at a certain age.
But the writers at DC wanted to have some fun with their characters and bring back some of the old guys from WWII. They introduced the concept that Flash from WWII lived on a different Earth, dimensionally speaking, from the Flash that was currently being published; this led to some fun crossovers between worlds, which became an annual thing.
Over the years DC Comics accumulated a number of alternate Earths, and in the 80s it was decided that all these Earths were too confusing, and over the course of a 12 issue miniseries called Crisis on Infinite Earths, the many world were winnowed down to one, DC Comics history was reshaped in a big cosmic conflagration, and supposedly a new continuity that would be friendlier to new readers was forged.
Except that it didn’t quite work out, and the new continuity quickly became a mess. And since by the 80s comic nerds became obsessed with continuity, things had to be done. There was Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, which tried to sort out some of the screw-ups that had popped up in DC continuity. That didn’t work, but by the time the early 21st century rolled around, everybody knew what the fanboys wanted: senses shattering crossovers that would make massive changes to the comics they read obsessively. Somewhere in DC Comics a plan was hatched; how far ahead this plan went I don’t know, and the people in charge pretty regularly lie about stuff like this, but I do know that the first two steps were written in stone: first came Identity Crisis, which led to a number of miniseries and crossovers which in turn led into Infinite Crisis.
Infinite Crisis turned out to be a sequel to Crisis on Infinite Earths, and in the course of the story the alternate Earths that had been laid off two decades before were brought back. From that point a whole mess of other crapola got published, all basically running in circles about the same thing: the multiverse is back. And now, we’re told, all of this is leading to Final Crisis.
History lesson over. With the official announcement of Final Crisis upon us, and the revelation of the tagline: Heroes Die. Legends Live Forever., the internet has been abuzz, as it’s wont to do. What does this mean? What is the Final Crisis? How much money will you dopes shell out on this junk now?
Here’s a theory my brother had that I love: what if Final Crisis is exactly what it says in the title? What if Final Crisis is the end of the DC Comics superhero universe?
Let’s be honest: comic book publishing isn’t the best game in town. For a big company like Warner Bros, DC Comics exists for one reason: to produce licenses that can be marketed, whether they be via films, video games, toys or underwear. The real money in comics lies not in comics, but products based on them. On top of that, the monthly comic as we know it is on its last legs: the floppies are mostly only available at comic book specialty stores, and how many of those are near you these days? The real future of comic books is in graphic novels and trade compilations, sold online and at book stores. On top of that, the world of comic book publishing – especially at continuity-mad DC – is so insular that the readership of comic books today is probably made up of the exact same people who were reading a decade ago. The market is dwindling and becoming more and more niche. In ten years, who will be left to go to comic book stores?
And there’s insult to be added to injury: if you look at the recent spate of movies and TV shows based on Marvel and DC characters, almost all of them take their cues from stories and characters that are a decade old or more. The fact is that no one is creating new characters or stories that will have mass appeal beyond the comic book audience. So why even bother with it anymore? Why does Warner Bros bother continuing monthly adventures of these characters? What if they just stopped?
Imagine Final Crisis as the capstone on the continuity-based DC Universe. All monthly titles stop publishing. Trades remain in print, and new books are commissioned, but they’re continuity-free, as hinted at by the idea of legends living forever. Now, instead of a bewildering array of monthly comics starring Superman, all thick in a complicated continuity that requires research to understand, a book comes out every month or two – a big book, hundreds of pages long, that tells a complete story. The creators of the book can use old characters or create new ones, but they don’t have to worry about what happened in last month’s Superman book or what’s being set up for next month’s – they can just tell a story.
I don’t know about you, but I find that idea kind of exciting. Comic books as a medium are amazing, but the obsessive compulsive world of superheroes has kept that medium from reaching its potential as a mass-market method of storytelling. And even within that world, the almost Talmudic level of fervor the diminishing fanbase has for these characters and their histories keeps new people from coming in. Ending the continuity based universe of interconnecting stories is a step that could free the medium from its shackles.
Of course this is probably not what’s happening. Final Crisis will lead into some other continuity-driven crossover, whether it be next year or in twenty. The remaining comic fans will shuffle into the store and drop more and more of their money onto the counter to buy comics that aren’t particularly well-made or interesting, but that serve just as continuity porn. Maybe on Earth 2 Final Crisis can change things up.