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IMO:
Dominos
By John Byrne

01.06.03


A recent discussion on a message board I frequent got me to thinking about the "old way" of telling comicbook stories. In the so-called Golden and Silver Ages (basically, everything before the tiny Marvel Comics reinvented itself so successfully in the very early 1960s) comicbook stories tended to be unique entities. Rarely, if ever, did one story have any effect upon another, in the same title or (Heaven forefend!) another. When Superboy was retconned into the Superman Mythos, circa 1945, for instance, it took several years for the writers and editors of the Superman titles to acknowledge the existence of the Boy of Steel.

Keep this in mind as we progress from here.

By the end of the 1940s the superhero was pretty much worn out, as far as comics were concerned, and by the early 50s it was only the Big Three, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, who continued to have any real presence in the marketplace.

Then, around 1956, the editors of National Periodicals decided it might be time to try the superhero gag again, and they launched (tentatively -- not even in his own title to begin with!) the Flash. A few months later, when The Flash became its own comic, it picked up the numbering of the Golden Age Flash Comics that had ended its run in 1949. But though the numbering was the same, the character was not. The Flash who premiered in Showcase and went on to get his own title a while later was not Jay Garrick, the Flash familiar to fans of the time, but a whole new guy, Barry Allen, with a whole different origin, and a whole different look.

Within a very short time, Barry was followed by a new Green Lantern, a new Hawkman, a new Atom -- none of whom were connected in any way to their predecessors. Not only that, but no attempt was made (or likely even expected) to explain what had happened to the "originals." The closest we got was a nod to the first Flash in the form of Barry Allen seen reading an issue of Flash Comics in his debut story.

Now, this is odd indeed, when you remember that, as I noted above, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman had continued their publishing runs unbroken from their debuts, and were still around in 1956, when the "new" Flash came along, as well as all the rest. And, in fact, the same Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman who had been members of the Justice Society of America would join with the new kids to form the Justice League of America -- and again there would be no reference to the "originals."

Well, not at first anyway.

And here is where the notion of comic stories existing as unique entities starts to become a bit of a problem -- because a few years after we saw Barry Allen reading an issue of Flash Comics in Showcase, we saw Barry Allen, in The Flash, accidentally "vibrate" through to a parallel dimension, where he met Jay Garrick.

Now, there is nothing more certain in my mind than that Gardner Fox and Julie Schwartz, concocting "The Flash of Two Worlds" had no intention that their tale be the first domino in a cascade that would eventually consume DC Comics to the point that the whole thing had to be blown up and started over.

"Had to be"?

Well, yes -- if some fans were to be believed.

And that was where the problem started. As I mentioned, there did not seem to be much of a response when brand new, unconnected versions of the characters were introduced. Why would there be? The average "lifetime" of a fan in those days was about 5 years, and DC/National was quite comfortable assuming the fans who has read the last issue of Flash Comics and the fans who would read the debut of Barry Allen in that role in Showcase would be almost entirely a different group. There might be a few holdovers from those earlier days, but they were few and (literally) far between. Not much in the way of organized Fandom back then. And the editors had a very simple and efficient way to deal with letters (Yes! Old fashioned letters!) that raised questions they didn't want to deal with: they ignored them.

But "The Flash of Two Worlds" did something quite unexpected: it not only gave those fans permission to wonder about the "original" characters -- it pretty much encouraged them to do so!

It was kind of unavoidable, looking back. Barry meets Jay, and Jay had been in the JSA with the original Green Lantern, the original Hawkman, the original Atom -- so where were there? And, even more to the point, where were the Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman who had also been on the team with Jay? And if they did, indeed, exist in that "parallel dimension," then where was the dividing line? If there was, say, a Superman in the world where Barry found Jay, which of the adventures of Superman we'd seen belong to him, and which belonged to "our" Superman? (And why were the originals given the Roman numeral II? Shouldn't the new guys get the second seat?)


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Now, all of this would have been easy enough to ignore, too, but for something that was happening around the same time: the burgeoning of that organized fandom I mentioned, and the increasing (if often only imagined) power of the fans in the actual creative process. Especially once fans started crossing the line, becoming Pros themselves. A couple of "generations" of comic professionals had come to the business with little or no prior knowledge or interest (most really wanted to do newspaper strips, or get into advertising). Now the scales began to tip -- more and more pros had grown up reading comics, and had come into the business because that was what they wanted to do.

And the hardest thing to do, when a fan becomes a pro, is to check the fan-think at the door. So it wasn't too long before those neo-pros began to write the kinds of stories they wondered about when they were fans. Began looking for ways to answer those questions (some of which only they had been asking!). Began linking stories, began linking consequences.

By the time I got into the business, a mere 18 years after "The Flash of Two Worlds" it had long been almost habitual to Ask Those Questions. Some writers could not even function unless they were Asking (and Answering) Those Questions. Where were the Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman of Earth 2? Why weren't those Golden Age characters aging and dying? What was the demarcation point between the Golden and Silver Ages (and therefore the characters who had populated both). Even Marvel was not immune, though it had less than half of DC's history. Enough people asked Stan Lee what happened to the "real" Don Blake, or where the "real" Thor was when Don Blake was busy being him, that Stan finally felt compelled to Answer the Question.

If you think about it for a moment, I'm sure you will be able to think of dozens upon dozens of stories that came about in the last couple of decades, largely because Those Questions were being Asked and Answered.

And the end result of all this? At DC, it was Crisis on Infinite Earths (a job I turned down, when it was just called The History of the DC Universe) -- and to this day there are people who say Crisis did not go far enough, or Crisis went too far -- or, somewhat after the fact, that Crisis wasn't really "necessary."

And still the dominoes fall. Crisis begat Man of Steel, and Man of Steel begat a whole syndrome. Now it seems a writer cannot begin a run on an existing series without blowing it all up and starting over. (Mea culpa? Not really. I would have been perfectly happy to do the reboot slowly, over several months, within existing continuity.)

So now we find ourselves where we are -- with DC on the verge of "needing" another Crisis, according to many fans (simply ignoring bad stories being no longer an option, apparently), and the current regime at M*rv*l trundling as fast as their pudgy little legs will let them toward the kind of morass that makes the "need" for the original Crisis seem like smoke and fairy dust.

And all because one simple, wonderful, neat, tidy, elegant little story, "The Flash of Two Worlds" knocked over a single domino, more than 40 years ago.

One of my all-time favorite stories, "The Flash of Two Worlds." Yet if I had the power, I think I would go back and wipe it out of existence, if I thought it could "save" the industry from what followed. If I thought it could turn the industry away from the road that lead to increasingly incestuous and impenetrable "stories" -- barely stories in any real sense, most of them.

If I could take us back, in other words, to a world in which any reader, anywhere, could pick up any comic and know that s/he would understand everything, know who everyone was and why they were doing those terrible things to each other -- and be absolutely sure s/he could come back next issue with the same knowledge. Hell, even after Stan, Jack and Steve invented the "Marvel Universe" it was still possible to do that for many a year.

So -- here we are, and there we were. And which was better? It seems like, alas, this time it really is an either/or situation.

 

 
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