This was the last time I think I truly felt I understood the DCU.
The year was 1986. Crisis on Infinite Earths
had happened - a great re-shuffling. All of the slowly-accumulated continuity of the last 40-50 years was shuffled and reorganized. Some parts were quietly dropped, others not so quietly; different bits were picked up again, but Crisis formed a sort of nexus point: you could say, "okay, this happened before, and this happened after." Crisis didn't immediately invalidate the previous 40+ years of comics, but it smoothed out some of the rough edges. This mini-series - it was technically two volumes, though it was combined in the reprints - essentially became the canon in a lot of ways. It was an introduction for new readers, it was a celebration of what DC was and would be. It was also gorgeous.
George Perez did the art for these two volumes. In the 80s, Perez basically was
the face of DC; he was the house style, personified. He was a stylist in that clean-cut way that gave Batman and Superman the triangular builds of athletes amd thighs that could crack coconuts; square-jawed chins and bouncy curls and blue-on-black sheen to the hair. And in this book, every single page is a cover or pin-up. The layouts are just fantastic, dynamic stuff - which is good, because it's a very wordy book, it helps to offset what would otherwise be something as dry as Who's Who in the DC Universe
. It also takes...I dunno if I would necessarily say chances, but it approaches things from a more mature level, suitable for the 80s. When they're retelling the story of the Greek gods, the gods and goddesses are nude - and my Ghost, you can actually see a nipple in a panel or two. That's not necessarily risqué even for 1986 - but it's in keeping with the idea that these are sort of Classical characters, and in Classical art there was nudity. It works, and works well.
I'll go beyond saying that: Perez worked his ass off for this book. There are dozens of little art nods and references to different comics and characters and artists from DC history in this book. Little Easter-eggs you wouldn't recognize unless you'd actually read the comics, like the appearance of the Demons Three when the text talks about magic and evil coming to Earth - it's little things like that, which can show
more than tell
, that makes the graphic format fascinating to me.
Writing chores are by Marv Wolfman, who gained a bit of notoriety for writing horror comics (because the Comics Code Authority forbade mention of the term 'Wolfman' in comics, among its other asinine rules, and when it was pointed out that Wolfman was actually the dude's name, they eased off a bit), and wrote Crisis on Infinite Earths
and New Teen Titans
(where he was also paired with Perez). So, sort of the Grant Morrison of his day, I guess? That feels like I'm making a joke or casting an aspersion, but it's maybe just the difference that thirty years makes between History of the DC Universe
. They filled similar roles at different times.
Wolfman's approach in History of the DC Universe
follows on from one of his original characters from Crisis: Harbinger - the secretary/herald/Girl Friday of the Monitor, who is reviewing the entire history of the DCU on her portable computer/book/proto-tablet. It's an interesting perspective, because from a meta-standpoint it allows the reader to identify with her as the character that wants to learn more, and also establishes the book itself as a quasi-in-character document - at the end of the book, she literally launches this history into space, where someone else might find it.
But it's not just a dry retelling of the history of the universe that Harbinger is after...she wants the answer to a specific question: What makes a hero?
It is a curious - and yet, I think, a brilliant - premise. It ties it together. Whether the character be alien or Earthling, god or demigod, mystical or super-scientific, a regular Joe or a costumed vigilante, it identifies heroism
as the defining trait of the DCU - no matter what the backgrounds of its characters, the odds they face, their powers or lack thereof... but it's sort of grounded by the idea that there are folks that, at rock bottom, want to do the right thing. It lets them go from this:
...to Sergeant Rock. All in the same book.
Bottom line: there are all sorts of heroes in the DCU.
I don't think anyone has forgotten that, but I think the focus has shifted. Maybe it was the grim'n'gritty dark age of comics. Maybe it was just Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis and too damn many reboots. Maybe '86 was just the last flourish of the Bronze Age, looking back to a simpler time when heroes were more "heroic" and comics focused more on stopping bank robbers and alien invaders - but at the same time DC's Vertigo line was cranking up the horror titles, Watchmen
and Dark Knight Returns
were being published, John Byrne was rebooting Superman with Man of Steel
... so perhaps there is more of a sense of nostalgia in this book than I thought, but nostalgia of someone in the 80s looking back at the 50s, 60s, and 70s and imagining what you'll see in the 90s, but not aware of what's really coming. It is the foundation for a new beginning, but it's a foundation that, I think was largely overshadowed by what came later. It proposed a kind of ethos for the DCU that didn't quite jive with the storylines that were going to come out.