Retcons, Reboots, And Resurrections: There’s Nothing Like The Handy Dandy Reset Button Of A DC Comics Crisis

by Scott Redmond

There is an anonymous proverb that states the only three things that are certain in life are birth, death, and change. Within the realm of ongoing comic book narratives, these take the form of retcons, resurrections, and reboots. For the purposes of this weekly feature, retcons are elements added into a character’s history after the fact, resurrections are characters returning from death or some state of limbo, and reboots are wholesale changes to a character or characters canon (history, supporting casts, origin story, etc).

These changes, just like all stories, range from those that add definitive things that still stand with the characters to those that sometimes should best be forgotten. Except, they won’t be in this feature. Each week we’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Retcons, Reboots, and Resurrections.

As the intro states, retcons and reboots are pretty much baked into the very DNA of shared universe comic book worlds. So much so with DC Comics that the publisher has long been the butt of jokes referencing its frequent pushing of the “Reboot button” over the last few decades. Since the ’80s anytime there has been a title from them with the words “Crisis” in it, there has been a very good chance there was going to be some real reboot or retcon-type continuity shenanigans. 

That definitely was the case with 2005’s big event, Infinite Crisis

In order to understand this crisis we have to look back at the first one from 1985, Crisis on Infinite Earths which saw the collapsing of the Multiverse and the formation of one solo universe where all the various characters DC created and bought were all in one place now. This event was the first major reboot of sorts for DC which saw new origin stories for Superman and others and the JSA and JLA existing in the same realm. 

At the end of the event the Superman and Lois Lane of Earth 2 (Kal-L), Alexander Luthor Jr from Earth 3, and the character that would become known as Superboy Prime from Earth Prime found themselves within a “paradise” pocket dimension outside of the universe that was created. Over the year or two leading up to this event series, there were a ton of storylines and minis that were showcasing how the heroes were crumbling. Their dark sins committed against their villains and against their fellow heroes were coming into the light, and they were crossing more and more lines. This is where the cracks of Infinite Crisis began. 

Essentially Superboy-Prime was from Earth Prime a world without superheroes but with comic books about Superman and other heroes just like our actual world. Watching the new universe and a lot of the “darker” or “grittier” takes on heroes and the things the heroes were doing that crossed lines, he began to feel that the wrong Earth survived and his Earth was the right one. In a way, Geoff Johns (the writer) is almost calling out the storylines DC Comics has done in recent years, some of which he was partially responsible for too, through the character. Superboy Prime’s attempts to punch his way out of the pocket dimension led to ripples on the timeline that altered events and origins within the DC Universe. 

These changes saw things like the rise and return of the formerly dead Jason Todd (who became Red Hood and terrorized Batman for a time in this era), alterations to origins for characters like Superman and Donna Troy among others, the restoration of the Doom Patrol both with original members resurrections and the team’s place in history and even some changes to the varying eras of the Legion of Super-Heroes. 

The event starts with Lois Lane dying and Alexander and Superboy convincing Kal-L Superman that the only thing that can save her is to bring back her original Earth 2, calling it a more perfect world. Turns out this of course was manipulation as both Alexander and Superboy had been leaving the pocket dimension for some time and had been the puppet masters behind much of the bad and dark things befalling the DC Universe over the years. Luthor’s true goal was to use the remains of the Anti-Monitor and heroes who still had traces of their old world to recreate the multiverse long enough to piece together a new “perfect” Earth from various worlds. 

Long story short, Superboy Prime kills a ton of heroes and battles the Connor Kent Superboy (who also dies in this event), Luthor’s plans are foiled when the Superboys crash into the Anti-Monitor tower which causes a merged “New Earth” to form, Luthor is murdered by Joker and Lex Luthor, the two Supermen defeat Superboy Prime (causing Earth 2 Superman to die and New Earth Superman to be powerless for a while), and the heroes fight off a big giant super-villain army to save the world. 

This merged New Earth was in a large way another reboot of sorts as origins are altered again for some characters, formerly dead characters just returned with no real explanation, some teams were reworked, and histories were altered while overall the main universe remained mostly the same as it had been before the event. This led to a time jump event called ‘One Year Later’ where all the titles jumped ahead with new status quos, only some of which were ever fully explained, and a multi-creator weekly series called 52 that was meant to fill in what happened in the gap year. 

Another consequence of the event was the eventual restoration of the multiverse, except this time it was a select number of universes rather than infinite. That number? 52, just like the weekly series and like with a ton of other things where the publisher would become enamoured with that number. 

Basically, this event largely seems to have come from the editors/creators going down a lot of dark paths and deciding they wanted to bring things back so they pushed the Crisis button to do so. It also allowed them to tinker wholesale with origins or characters without actually doing the stories that would show this or explain it. Just attribute it either to Superboy’s reality-altering punches or the merging of the worlds. 

As a story, it’s just the cherry on top of a very grotesque brutal era of DC Comics where characters were raped, brutally murdered, savaged, crossed so many lines, betrayed one another constantly, and were always at one another’s throats. A lot of it is also tinged by the Silver Age nostalgia held by Johns and former Executive Editor Dan DiDio (who was promoted to Co-Publisher, a title he held till he was let go in 2020). 

Beyond the brutality and ridiculousness of this event, it was the tipping point that began a cascade of falling dominoes that DC Comics has only just begun to move past. This was the moment that really started the Johns/DiDio/Jim Lee era of constant attempts to “fix” or “alter” the continuity/timeline of the DC Universe. One of their most infamous attempts will be part of a massive perhaps two-part column later this summer. 

Overall Infinite Crisis could be summed up with the often-used gif/quote from Mad Men, “Not great, Bob!”

Next Week: A blast from the ’90s past gains new life in the 21st century

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