Monday, July 31, 2006

ACROSS THE 4TH DIMENSION

The Evolution of the Superhero and the Superheroic Continuum

By "John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL"

Read his various other ravings here, and at http://www.angelfire.com/ny3/docnebula/index.html


Yowzers! THAT's a pretty stuck up title up there, eh? I myself am not even entirely certain what a continuum is, and yet, apparently, I'm writing an article about one.

Actually, I'm kidding. Not that it isn't a rather pompous title, but in fact, I do know what a continuum is... or I think I do. I suppose we'll find out.

While writing another article recently, I was struck by the rather interesting concept that the standard phrases comics fans and pros use to denote the various different periods in comics history - Golden Age, Silver Age, and then, whatever the hell comes after the Silver Age; I myself use Modern Age - are not, in and of themselves, entirely useful in describing anything except, well, rough historical time-sets.

Even there, they're not exact, as at least half a dozen times in the past year alone, I've been scolded, or sagely corrected, or out and out called an idiot, by some fine fine fellow who, reading something I've written in which I state my own ideas on when the Silver Age ended, has taken it upon themselves, through a scholarly desire for uniformity and accuracy, or well intentioned kindness, or offended outrage, to 'correct' me.

In each case, I have been informed with the utmost sincerity that in fact, the end of the Silver Age, although there is no exact date assigned to it, is 'generally assumed' to have occurred at or with:

* The publication of GIANT SIZE X-MEN #1
* The publication of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS
* The publication of NEW TEEN TITANS #1
* The point in the early 1970s where Jack Kirby left DC to go back to work, briefly, for Marvel
* The point in the late 1960s where Jack Kirby left Marvel to work for DC
* The point in the mid 1970s where Gerry Conway drove Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber away from Marvel
* The creation of the She Hulk
* The publication of the first mainstream superhero comic strip drawn by Neal Adams

Honestly, and I mean no disrespect to the best intentioned of those who have conferred these invaluable datums to me, but... well, it's amusing, that something that everyone admits 'has no exact date assigned to it', is still 'generally known' to have taken place at any point between the late 1960s and the mid 1980s.

Most of those who have written to me, and both of those with whom I have had earnest, impassioned conversations on this matter, have been at great pains to justify their own particular beliefs. The fellow who deeply and with great conviction argues that the Silver Age died with the very first panel ever published of Neal Adams more 'photographic still life' style artwork, as he puts it, does so simply from his impassioned emotional belief that Neal Adams simply cannot in any way be considered a Silver Age artist, and therefore, the Bronze / Modern / New / Diamond / Whatever Age must have begun with him.

The fellow who claims that She Hulk singlehandedly destroyed the Silver Age... well, I find it almost impossible to argue with such logic, and, like Fox Mulder, I Want To Believe.

Still, for what it's worth, I have my own definitions of the end of the Silver Age, which differ primarily from these others in that I do not insist on one termination point for both mainstream comics companies dominating the superhero comics industry at that time. For my own purposes, I place the end of Marvel's Silver Age as the publication of GIANT SIZE X-MEN #1, and the end of DC's around a decade later, with the publication of CRISIS. The dates and events are arbitrary, and I'm sure there are things that took place somewhat before and after either of those events that I would, emotionally, assign to a different 'Age' if I thought about them, but, for me, those markers work well enough to be generally usable.

And I find that, like nearly everyone else's definitions (except maybe the diehard Kirby fanatic who insists that when Kirby left Marvel to create the Fourth World at DC, that marked the beginning of the Modern Age), my reckonings work well enough... for me, at least. When I call a particular comic book 'Silver Age' or 'Modern', most of my fellow fans know what I'm talking about. If debate springs up, well, that's why they make chocolate and vanilla, right?

Ultimately, though, it's an empty, pointless, and futile debate, the only benefit of which is occasionally reading or hearing really interesting theories and comparing one fan's perceptions of that particular Age Of Wonders to another's. You can generally tell exactly where a thoughtful, devoted comics fan's primary interests lie within the subgenre of superhero funny books, in fact, by where they define the fall of the Silver Age.

Still, in a recent article, I noted in passing, almost as a sidelight, the various phases in the ongoing development and evolution of the superhero concept, from its beginnings as a crudely etched icon having wildly improbable (and often times poorly thought through, see any early issue of SUPERMAN if you don't believe me) adventures, through the present day superhuman icon, whose morality is oftentimes troubled, if it exists at all, who lives more often than not in a world designed more and more to depict a cynical perception of our current social context, said cynicism most commonly being reflected in ridicule and rejection of the very notions of heroism, and all the traditional superheroic trappings that come with it.

And it occurred to me that the various historical period tags we use - Golden, Silver, and Modern Age - are not only not useful in tracing the various phases of this evolution, but are, in fact, rather deceptive.

Simply put, lumping both DC and Marvel's publications from roughly the same time period (early 1960s through anywhere from the early 1970s to the mid 1980s, depending on your own preference) all together as 'the Silver Age' is a pretty fair whitewashing.

For one thing, DC's Silver Age actually, arguably, began in 1956, with the first appearance of the Silver Age Flash, although tracing the beginning of DC's Silver Age is somewhat difficult, since Batman and Superman never ceased publication and thus, never really received the kind of 'updatings' that other concepts which had been discontinued for most of a decade between Golden and Silver Age, such as the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom, did.

Still, it wasn't until the celebrated (and really, quite brilliant, in terms of both the basic idea and its sheer, timeless entertainment value) "Flash of Two Worlds" was published in 1961 that what would be the shape of DC's Silver Age was established, with its essential Earth 1 / Earth 2 dichotomy that put a foundation down under everything which would follow, and the destruction of which foundation would be, in and of itself, the foundation (or lack thereof) holding up (or not) DC's Modern Age, post Crisis continuity (or lack thereof).

However, we're still quibbling about dates, and let's get over that. The main reason I feel that giving the publications of Marvel and DC during this rough time period the same general label - 'The Silver Age' - is, in any meaningful context beyond the actual time period itself, deceptive, is that the two companies were publishing such markedly different material at the time. Material not simply different in surface details, as would be true if one were to compare many Golden Age comics companies like, say, Timely, Fawcett, and Quality (or so it seems to me from my acquaintance with reprints, but if I'm wrong, I'm sure some disgruntled Golden Age fan will let me know), but in substantial thematic elements, as well.

To put it bluntly, and to somewhat forerun my own thesis, DC was, during their 'Silver Age', publishing Two Dimensional Superheroes, very similar to those that had been published throughout most of the Golden Age, while Marvel's Silver Age was the definitive period where Three Dimensional Superheroes were first invented, and steadily transformed the entire superhero comics subgenre. (And DC is still playing catch-up ball; the end of their own Silver Age, the CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, marked a cross-title, universal attempt at updating all their Two Dimensional Superhero concepts to Three Dimensional Status... an ambitiously conceived, poorly executed attempt with generally unsatisfactory and unpleasant results, in my opinion.)

To articulate my point fully, I have to sum this all up by saying that while 'Golden Age' is roughly useful to indicate a time frame - generally, the 40s, a 'heyday' for superhero (and other types) of comic books, when the comic books themselves, were large, thick, garish, cheap, universally available in every drugstore, supermarket, and corner newsstand, and read casually by nearly everyone - and, by coincidence, is also useful to denote the type of superheroes being published then - mostly Two Dimensional Heroes, interspersed with survivors from the One Dimensional Period, although most one dimensional comic books and strips were the actual 'funny book' characters, the animorphic animals and military parodies where the same tired, crude, slapstick-derived gags were run over and over again - it unfortunately set a bad example as far as epochal terminology in the comics field.

Future comics scholars continued the theme by calling the next great resurgence in superhero comics 'the Silver Age', despite the fact that National’s comics, for the most part, continued to be pretty much the same as they had been since the 1940s, with only surface features and details being changed.

Fantasy and 'magical' elements that had been popular in the more mystical 1940s, when people by and large turned away from the hard science and technology propelling a global conflict and a nightmare of atomic age paranoia, seeking gentler, funnier, more whimsical and escapist elements in their entertainment, were replaced, in the updated versions of characters like Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom, with high tech sounding, pseudo-scientific elements that had come to be more appealing to a populace, and especially, a juvenile market, that had grown up with 'futuristic' technology like atomic power, television, and the space race and was excited by the inherent possibilities in it.

Yet of all the revived Golden Age heroes, only the Atom's modern incarnation was substantially different from his Golden Age depiction in terms of anything other than appearance and surface details, and even there, the primary difference lay in giving him another Golden Age character, the Doll Man's, size change powers.

Now, no sane person would argue with the fairly incontrovertible conclusion that DC's revival of earlier characters in a new form, and the popularity of those characters, led directly to the creation of the revolutionary stable of Three Dimensional Superheroes soon to appear under Stan Lee's byline for Marvel Comics. Attempting to debate any such assertion would be pointless and deranged, since both Stan Lee and Martin Goodman have been extensively documented in their statements that the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and Thor were created, and the character of Ant-Man was revived from a previous outing in a monster comic, to tap into the new popularity being enjoyed by long underwear garbed superhuman crimefighters.

Still, the innovative approach of Lee, Kirby, and Ditko in the creation of these concepts was a cataclysmic upheaval in the underlying conceptual framework of the superheroic mythos, and allowing it to be lumped together under the same generic label as what DC was doing at the time, and would continue to do for the next decade at least, was... well... more or less like declaring that the entirety of Europe and Asia in the year 100 A.D. to be 'Bronze Age', when, in fact, the proliferations of different cultures at that time, even after three centuries of the homogenizing influence of the Roman Empire, had created an astonishingly diverse array of social structures, religious beliefs, and technological advancement levels across a relatively small and concentrated geographic region.

Still, the initial oversimplification is understandable. In general, there was a uniformity to the presentation of superhero characters in the Golden Age. That this uniformity disappeared within a four color welter of cheap newsprint in 1962, though, when the Silver Age abruptly, painfully, and wrenchingly forked into two widely divergent storytelling streams is something no one really recognized at the time, and that has been consistently overlooked since.

At DC, the 2D Superhero, in all his or her stolid, unrelentingly decent, iconic, quirkless lack of affect, continued impassively belaboring Evil about the head and shoulders with relentlessly Caucasian civility for a decade or more.

At Marvel, an ever increasing passel of 3D Superheroes, concerned with their elderly aunt's heart medicine, their guilt over causing their closest friend to be doomed to an existence as a monstrous freak for the rest of his life, their need to constantly wear a bulky, constrictive chest plate to keep their damaged hearts beating, the monstrous, technologically born curse that turned them into a raging, all powerful monster whenever they grew overwrought, their selfless devotion to protecting a normal world that rejected, hated, and feared them... THOSE guys, nay, True Believer, these whacked out, hopped up, gibbering weirdos and freaks... bounded and leapt and hurled hammers and FLAMED ON!, flipping their lips and going wubba-wubba-wubba at all the up to that point solemn conventions of four color superheroics.

Oddball, outrageous, uncanny, and, most frightening of all, utterly cool, and, apparently, commercially viable... with a web-swinging swoosh and a leather-lunged bellow of "IT'S CLOBBERING TIME!", the Age of the Three Dimensional Superhero was all over us like an unstoppable army of cybernetically directed ants.

Naturally, the world would never be the same... although you couldn't tell that if you only read DC comics for the rest of the 1960s.

Nor, apparently, would this document ever be the same, as a software glitch leading to the dreaded Blue Screen Of Death has just eaten the three paragraphs that were originally Right Frickin Here. However, we come by enlightenment in strange ways, and my search to see if perhaps Windows might have backed up a version of this document containing those three paragraphs prior to suddenly devouring them led me to the Windows/Temp directory, where I was horrified to see back up versions of every article and piece of email and other personal item I've worked on here at work, when I was SUPPOSED to be doing, you know, actual WORK, just hanging there, waiting for some snoopy supervisor who clearly doesn't have enough to do herself to come along and bust me wide open.

We live and learn. Several clickings of the Delete key later, here I am, about to start retyping those damned missing three paragraphs, with that same surly, petulant feeling I get whenever my writing goes to waste, and yet, somewhat mollified by my newly gained knowledge of just how goddam sneaky and treacherous the Windows environment really is.

Anyway... I'm pretty sure I blathered something about how, before I went any further in talking about 2D Heroes, and 3D Heroes, and even the 4D Superheroic Continuum that has been sending shockwaves through the mainstream of the superhero subgenre since the early 1980s, but which has not yet fundamentally transformed the entire industry the way the 3D Superheroic Continuum has... before I went into all that, I needed, probably, to define my terms. And then I yammered a little bit about how, in another article entirely (also available on the Martian Vision webpage), I had defined various Dimensions of Roleplaying Games as being Movement, Background, and Characterization.

The Dimensions of the Superheroic Continuum, as they have evolved, are similar to these, but also necessarily different. And, while I think that any reasonably knowledgeable superhero comics fan who has the attention span necessary to actually undertake the reading and comprehension of one of these lurching, bulky, Cyclopean textual Juggernauts I somewhat ruefully refer to as 'columns' has a fair grasp already on what I mean by 2D, 3D, and even 4D Superheroes, still, some precise articulation and definition of these terms would not, in any way, be out of order. Hence and therefore:

The First Dimension of a Superheroic Continuum is Length, by which we mean, a goal the hero is moving towards.

The Second Dimension of a Superheroic Continuum is Width, also known as, a Context, or memory of the past.

The Third Dimension of a Superheroic Continuum is Depth, which applies to both the individual superhero (and all other characters) in the form of more detailed, realistic characterization that allows one character to be told from another, and which also applies to the superheroic continuum itself, in the form of cross and multi-title consistent continuity.

The Fourth Dimension of a Superheroic Continuum is Time, which might better be called an acknowledgement of Entropy, or, even more succinctly, real Change, as opposed to the illusion thereof often used to in Three Dimensional Continuums as a technique for imparting Depth to characterizations and continuity.

Yeah, that tells us a lot.

Okay. First dimensional superheroes, and other sorts of characters as well, have only one basic thing going for them: they're trying to do something, and as they try to do something, interesting events occur to them. For a 1D Superhero, the goal is usually fighting crime, or Evil, or Something The Audience Will Generally Agree Should Be Fought, whether that something be juvenile delinquency, conflicting political ideologies, social deviancy, alien invaders, worshippers of Baal, or even encroaching authoritarianism by the American government. The 1D Superhero spends all his or her time fighting the Chosen Evil. Any other details in their lives are there only to further whatever plot they may be embroiled in at the time, and they never remember or at least, make any reference to, their past exploits or future plans. The 1D Superhero lives in the Eternal Now, and as such, is a rather Zen fellow, in this regard if no other.

Second Dimensional Superheroes add to this Eternal Now the element of Memory, by which I mean, they gain the capacity to remember their past encounters with colorful foes, and to remark on it when said colorful foe returns for a rematch. This gives them both Length... a goal to pursue... and Width... the capacity to remember past pursuits of that goal. Memory means little else to the 2D Superhero, but it does establish the first, faint, rudimentary aspects of that vast and overarching concept generally known as 'continuity', as I've gone into in other articles, most notably TOOL OF THE TRADE. It necessitates, at least, and generally at most, that the writers and editors of a particular comic strip keep straight the past events that have occurred to the character, so he can refer to them coherently when it becomes pertinent for him to do so.

Third Dimensional Superheroes are immersed in Depth, which applies to both themselves and the worlds they live in, in the forms of Consistency and Characterization. Consistency is the first real element of this ideological evolution that can be seen to apply to the Continuum, or surrounding world and universe that the Superhero lives in, rather than to merely him or herself. Consistency can't matter to a Superhero who does not live in a common world with other Superheroes who each have their own published adventures and who occasionally meet each other and discuss them, therefore, it is not so much an element of the Superhero him or herself as it is of his surrounding reality.

Consistency is continuity taken to a cross-universal extent, an ongoing effort to reconcile every event and occurrence depicted in a certain set of open ended, ongoing comic books, (or, I suppose, other sorts of publications and media fictions, as we can see currently on TV with BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and its spin off, ANGEL) so that they reflect each other in a fashion compatible with 'real life' and their own previously established histories, and above all else, do not contradict each other, or what has been depicted before.

In a 2D Super Continuum, such as DC's 'Original Universe' throughout the 1950s and 1960s, there is very little Consistency. Individual superheroes remember their own pasts, but when they meet other heroes, they never refer to any previous meetings between them or past adventures they have shared, and nothing that occurs in any of these shared adventures has any impact on either hero's individual sagas, and it is only in these shared adventures that the individual heroes even refer to or recognize the existence of other superheroes in their own continuums.

Throughout the Silver Age, DC's 2D Superheroes only seemed to be aware of each other in specific titles designed for ongoing team ups, like BRAVE AND THE BOLD, WORLD'S FINEST, and the JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA... and the events in those comic books never touched on or in any way influenced the events in the heroes' individual titles, unless, for some reason, an editor specifically arranged for one hero to guest star in another one's title. For the most part, when Batman was having an adventure in DETECTIVE, he never referred to or thought of any of his fellow Justice Leaguers, or any other superhuman he might have encountered in a BRAVE AND THE BOLD story, and Superman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman were all treated similarly.

It was only after Marvel successfully debuted the 3D Superheroic Continuum, in which all of its characters readily interacted with each other at the veritable drop of a winged cowl or underarm web, and not only interacted, but also remembered those interactions and commented on them in later adventures, did elements of Consistency begin to very slowly and gradually creep into DC's 2D Superheroic continuum. And even that took a long time.

Characterization, on the other hand, is that element of 3D Superheroics that applies to the individual characters. Prior to the advent of the 3D Superhero, there wasn't a great deal of actual characterization in comic books. 2D Superheroes, at least, as generally depicted in the most successful and populous 2D Continuum, DC's, were really only readily discernable from each other by their costumes, hair color, and powers. Their general physiques were as interchangeable as their personalities; all of them were iconically decent, valiant, heroic, massively muscled mesomorphs so utterly identical that in a JLA plot where Batman and Superman exchanged costumes in order to foil the nefarious plans of wiley wizard Felix Faust, neither he nor we could tell any difference between the two of them until Superman took off Batman's cowl and revealed his trademark forehead curl.

Now, to my mind, that isn't characterization. When plots are driven and interest in stories is generated solely by the cunning strategems of the bad guys and the bizarrely fortuitous manner in which the heroes always seem to manage to defeat them on the final page, clearly, the actual behavior and personalities of the heroes is a matter of little importance. When every single scripted word of dialogue is expository and pretty much interchangeable, well, there is no Characterization. And these lines of description, to the best of my recollection, sum up the vast majority, if not the entirety, of superhero stories published in the 40s and 50s by any imprint, and through the 60s and early 70s by DC.

(Mind you, these are delightful stories and don't let anyone tell you any different and I'd happily maim an entire comics shop full of Image fans for a time belt that would take me back to, say, 1968, and let me pick up whole stacks of early Silver Age DCs and Marvels off drugstore spinner racks for the outrageous sum of, say, 12 cents each, or maybe a whopping TWENTY FIVE or FIFTY CENTS for a special GIANT SIZE or 100 PAGE SUPER SPECTACULAR. As the fat bald guy says in my favorite movie, "Youth is wasted on the wrong people". Or to put it more kindly, the greatest opportunities in life always seem to come when we're completely unprepared for them.)

In other words, in the Golden Age all superheroes were Two Dimensional. In the Silver Age, DC's heroes remained, for the most part, Two Dimensional, while Marvel initiated the next step in the continuum's evolution with its creation of Three Dimensional Superheroics.

In what at first seems ironic to those of us who place our faith in the various 'Age' labels, the DC continuum as a whole did not become credibly 'Three Dimensional' until the defining moment when its Silver Age ended, THE CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS... which basically means, while Marvel's Silver Age is basically defined as the origin of the 3D Superhero Continuum and the Marvel Universe as we understand it to exist has always been Three Dimensional, DC remained 'an Age behind' until, by my own reckoning, the mid 1980s... and, again, by my own reckoning, by the time DC entered the Modern Age and became a Three Dimensional Continuum (if a generally poorly conceived and execrably executed one), Marvel had passed on into its own Modern Age most of a decade before... although, since Marvel's own concepts and comics remained for the most part Three Dimensional, it's becoming clearer and clearer that the 'Ages' designations, however we arrive at them, have little to do with actual evolutionary developments in the superheroic concept and continuum itself than they do with changes in the individual characters and copyrighted properties within those superhero continuums themselves.

(Actually, as I discovered by the end of this article, the Age designations... at least, as I define the epochal turning from Silver to Modern Age... actually denote a profound devolution in the superheroic continuum... but we'll get to that later.)

Of course, we're stuck with them, because it never seems to have occurred to anyone prior to this (that I'm aware of) to analyze the history of comics in terms of evolutionary phases, rather than arbitrarily designated time periods. And, what the hell, they work well enough... except for the fact that they also cause confusion, when we consider that in fact, while DC spent nearly a quarter of a century playing evolutionary catch up with the Three Dimensional Revolution launched by Marvel pretty much accidentally in 1962, Marvel turned around and aped DC's 'Silver Age' updating of earlier concepts fourteen years or so after their initial successes, kicking off their own glossy re-varnishings of previously established concepts with GIANT SIZE X-MEN #1.

However, unlike DC, Marvel took their conceptual repackagings a little bit further; in addition to changing some surface details and appearances, they also initiated an effort to pretty much entirely abandon the core thematic elements of the concepts they were re-upholstering. Since DC's Golden and Silver Age characters really didn't have core thematic elements, this was somewhat innovative, if, ultimately, deconstructive, overly simplistic, and short sightedly shallow.

Marvel also kept its conceptual repackagings 'in continuity', something DC did not establish until five years after it debuted its first revised version of a previous character. Thus, Marvel's New X-Men existed from the start in the same world and continuity as their original X-Men, even though the new X-Men weren't teenagers, didn't really act like outcasts, and only rarely seemed to remember that they were supposed to be fighting other evil mutants in defense of a status quo that despised them.

I'm starting to confuse myself, here. Still, while typing the above mishmosh, I came to realize that probably the primary reason DC's post Crisis, Modern Age universe has been such a spectacular failure is that when they moved unilaterally to recreate themselves as Three Dimensional, they...

No. Let's stow that for now, although we WILL get back to it, because there's nothing I enjoy more when writing an article than taking a good hard shot at the Crisis. For now, though, having digressed enough for just this second, let's go back and finish defining our Dimensions of an evolving Superheroic Continuum here.

4D Superheroic Continuums, as I have indicated above, incorporate within themselves the concept of Time, which can also be called Entropy, or simply, Change. This seems simple, but in fact, it pervades very nearly every single aspect of a superheroic continuum, from the characters themselves to the laws of physics and codes of behavior they live with and under.

In 2D and 3D Continuums, there are certain givens that do not change, and usually, those givens can be summed up succinctly in the character's, or series', concept blurb. The Fantastic Four will always be a super-powered, altruistic, adventuring family (and when they stop being that, they stop being worth reading).

The X-Men will always be hated and feared by a world they are sworn to protect. The Avengers are Earth's Mightiest Heroes, banded together to fight the foes no single hero could defeat. Superman is, well, he's always Superman... not just physically, but emotionally, intellectually, morally, and ethically, as well. Batman will always be seeking to protect the innocent from Crime, as he failed to do in his life's defining moment when he lost his parents to a nameless, vicious thief. Spider-Man will always be striving to make up for the one moment of irresponsibility that led to his Uncle Ben's death. Thor... doesn't seem to have much of a central concept, which may be why in the absence of Jack Kirby, his own title never seems to really have much direction, although in the context of the Avengers, he always seems to fit in well. The Legion of Superheroes will always be essentially a kid's club, a great big super powered Lil Rascals devoted to maintaining a universe of Law & Order so they can have a safe place to hold hands, have dances, watch movies, and hang out at the malt shop, in between bouts with the Time Trapper and the Fatal Five.

In both 2D and 3D Universes, what is, always will be, and at most, there will only be an illusion of change, with superficial alterations made for a year or so, after which, everything will quietly revert to the commercially and conceptually proven template that underlies each concept as a constant in the continuum's ongoing equation.

(Gee. If you like pompous, pedantic, self important and pretentious prose with a big ol' stick up its butt, that's a pretty good sentence.)

In 4D Superhero Continuums, though... things change, and, in general (perhaps because of the cynical decade in which 4D Superheroics made their initial debut) they seem to change bad. Heroes die, villains die, the girl dies, everybody dies. Superteams dissolve and reform, characters change their names and powers and costumes, personalities and characterizations evolve and mutate unpredictably, and most characters, just like real people, have somewhat flexible moral codes (assuming they have moral codes at all) that are defined on a case by case basis.

There is no 'always'. A 4D Peter Parker is perfectly capable of simply saying "Screw this Uncle Ben guilt trip crap, I've been fighting whackos in tights for ten years now and people STILL hate me, Uncle Ben isn't coming back, I'm going to put my black costume back on, go steal a shipment of gold, and retire to the Royal Bahamas with a couple of cute blondes". Batman might suddenly decide he's tired of coddling criminals and watching maniacs wander in and out of Arkham Asylum on apparent day passes, and simply start shooting his bad guys in the head instead. Clark Kent might decide to toss over the mild mannered reporter bs and become the greatest quarterback in the history of pro football, or the greatest superstud in the history of adult films. Worse, after a year's worth of issues doing all these things, each character might then decide to go do something else, and behave in an entirely different manner.

In other words, suddenly Superheroic Continuums become much more like the 'real world', other than having superhumans in them... because, if you want to look at it from another perspective (and isn't that pretty much all we do here?) the whole evolution of the Superheroic Continuum has been about increasing increments and incidences of Change into the fictional realms that our favorite super-people inhabit. Memory lets them remember what's happened before and note how different the current events occurring to them now are. Consistency allows those past events to be incorporated across their entire world, and Characterization allows them to give a more convincing illusion of learning and growing from the past experiences that they, and everyone else in their world, can now remember and relate to. So, finally, when a 4D Superheroic Continuum incorporates actual Change, not just the illusion thereof... the last real barrier between how their worlds work, and how we perceive ours to work, seems to vanish.

(It's probably worth noting at this point that while my general dislike of 'modern' comics has lent a rather disparaging tone to the above, in point of fact, Four Dimensional treatment doesn't have to be bad.

For example, the only really GOOD Star Trek movie so far, or probably ever, STAR TREK II, was good because it was the only one allowed to be Four Dimensional... it was the only one that incorporated a sense of natural Entropy, in which Change was actually embraced, and the characters were allowed to be shown as having aged gracefully, evolving beyond the eternal archetypes enforced on them in the original series, and in which new characters were introduced to be their next generation replacements. Naturally, Paramount quickly sobered up, came back to their senses, and blew every last shred of Four Dimensionality out of their Star Trek continuity over the next two movies, but still, for one shining moment, Star Trek became Four Dimensional, and despite a plot absolutely rife with logic problems and credibility holes one could drive a Klingon cruiser through, the absolute authenticity of the characterizations raised this one film hugely above the wretched standards maintained by all the others.)

And at this point, yes, now we can go back to deconstructing Crisis and figuring out, given the above listed elements of Superheroic Evolution, exactly why DC's Modern Age Universe has sucked so resolutely ever since (and in fact, even before) its inception.

The reason that occurred to me while I was typing up the 3D paragraphs... in fact, that burst on me like a wondrous epiphany... was that while DC terminated their own Silver Age in an attempt to emulate Marvel's Silver Age and make their own characters Three Dimensional, their analysis did not include the other necessary element of a 3D Superheroic Continuum... Consistency. In effect, they attempted to apply Depth ONLY TO THEIR CHARACTERS, without applying it to their continuum. So they did their damnedest to make their characters Three Dimensional, yes sir, but they completely neglected to make the underlying universe, or continuum, Consistent.

Their new continuity remained, for the most part, Two Dimensional, if only in that the events depicted in one particular comic could never be safely assumed, in the DC Modern Age, to reflect or impact in any way on the events in any other particular comic. (DC's editors even admitted this on occasion, apparently while drunk and therefore treacherously truthful, as when some flunky doing a JUSTICE LEAGUE letters page, in response to a querulous letter wondering piteously WHY the Batman in the League during that particularly witless period behaved rather like Moe Howard and not at all like, you know, Batman, stated in print that the depiction of Batman in the JL books at that time could be considered to be 'out of continuity', if it made the readers feel any better. Such admirable attention to Consistency, an essential element of the 3D Superheroic Continuum DC had striven so long and so hard to emulate and evolve their own universe into, is both admirable and touching.)

In fact, probably the best word for DC's attempt at making itself over into a Modern, Three Dimensional Superheroic Continuum would have to be 'clueless'. Apparently, those in charge of DC's creative directions were, for the most part, utterly incapable of actual analytical thought. They gazed upon the wonders of the Silver Age Marvel Universe and had enough dim, vestigial, neo-sentient capacity for thought to feel awe and, like a baby or a Neanderthal, reach out towards the bright, shiny thing with a repetitively burbled "Want it, want it, WANT it, gimme gimme gimme"... and yet, when it came time to sit down and actually try to recreate that phenomena, the world's first Three Dimensional Superheroic Continuum, no one of them had more than a vague concept of exactly what it was they were setting out to do.

Well, that last isn't fair. Although I'm second to thousands in my appreciation of his talents as a writer, I take no backseat to anyone in my... well... respect isn't the word, and appreciation certainly feels wrong, but, let's just say, my perception and acknowledgement of Marv Wolfman's canny ability to see exactly what works in someone else's publications, boil that down to a workable formula, and run off a fully functional, yet utterly litigation proof, conceptual Xerox for a rival company.

So it was that by the time CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS was over, Marv, with the help of Len Wein and George Perez, had managed to reshape the DC Universe into a perfectly serviceable and consistent 3D Superheroic Continuum. It was, mind you, also a textbook example of how to deliberately stomp the living crap out of every single worthwhile and interesting aspect of an entire universe's previously established fictional history, but still, had DC's post Crisis editors and writers simply stuck to the template Marv set up and explicated using easily understood one syllable words in a two volume HISTORY OF THE DC UNIVERSE, then DC's Modern Age would be, at the very least, readily comprehensible and at least as internally consistent as Marvel's. (Leaving aside the X-books, which we pretty much always have to when using words like 'comprehensible' and 'internally consistent', at least, in a non-ironic context.)

However, DC did not do this. What DC did was take out some hypersonic whistle whose notes, apparently, could only be heard by Big Name Artists Who Thought They Could Write, and blow it really hard.

The resulting mad stampede of Fan Favorite Pencilers Who Had Previously Blackmailed Editors Into Letting Them Write Their Own Scripts And Nearly Destroyed Superhero Comics... hmmmm. I'm editorializing, aren't I? Well, anyway, DC wound up hiring a bunch of prima donnas without much of a clue about actual writing to handle the reinvention of all their various character concepts, tossed the job of coordinating universe wide continuity to some poor sap no one was going to ever listen to (I think it was Bob Greenberger) and then pretended to be surprised when the likes of John Byrne, Frank Miller, Tim Truman, George Perez, Mike Grell, Keith Giffen, and, in a startling break with this newly established tradition of only hiring artists who erroneously thought they could write, Jim Owsley (it wasn't that big a break, as Owsley, at this time, was in fact a 'writer' who erroneously thought he could write) refused to even remotely consider coordinating their efforts and concepts with each other, resulting in a new 'universe' where nothing meshed, there was no coherency or consistency, and no one... no professional, no fan, no god nor demon nor mutant messiah, had the vaguest frickin clue what was going on from one title to the next, or had been the previous month, or would be the following month.

Such, in fact, was the utterly unprecedented level of inconsistency and general idiocy that the first two issues of a new SECRET ORIGINS series, announced as being the series that would provide the newly revised origins of the newly revised characters and thus, create a blueprint for the newly revised and consistent post Crisis DC continuity, were devoted to publishing the Secret Origins of characters that no longer existed in the new continuity. Truly, 'clueless' is, in fact, a merciful and almost kind word for the manner in which DC utterly bungled their ambitious effort to recreate themselves as a Marvel-esque, Three Dimensional Superheroic Continuum.

Thus, we see that a move to give Characterization to one's fictional superhumans is not enough to make a Superheroic Continuum truly three dimensional, in the Mighty Marvel Manner that, more and more as time has gone on, has come to influence and directly shape nearly every other attempt to create a credible, coherent cross title superhero continuity. We also need Consistency, applied... well, consistently... across the entire imaginary realm, or... well, you end up with the Modern Age DC 'Original Universe', which, frankly, hangs together about as sensibly and coherently as an ethical position paper from an alumnus of Bob Jones University.

However, the problems with DC's Modern Universe cannot entirely be written off to the resistance on the part of their Big Name Prima Donnas to working together and thus, incorporating Consistency into their new continuum. Other elements also intruded into the mix of new Characterizations, as well. And to trace the origin of those elements, we now have to look at the impact and influence of Four Dimensional Superheroics on the Modern Age DC Universe, both in its birth throes, and continuing even now.

While Fourth Dimensional Superheroics have not had the sweeping, transformative effect on the entire substance of mainstream superhero comics in the manner that the Three Dimensional evolutionary advancement did, nonetheless, they have sent palpable ripples through the subgenre. The Marvel Universe, which at the start of the 80s was still happily chugging along in its Three Dimensional Way, wasn't much affected by the new, Four Dimensional Superheroic Continuum as manifested by Alan Moore's seminal and groundbreaking work in his revival of an obscure and laughably unoriginal British superhero 'picture paper' strip named MARVELMAN... although, ironically, Marvelman's American, and soon to be much more famous, incarnation was to be directly affected by Marvel Comic's team of high priced lawyers, so much so that before Eclipse republished the series in the U.S., its name was suddenly changed to the, if anything, even hokier and clumsier MIRACLEMAN.

MIRACLEMAN was literally a revelation, and while it's difficult to now cast our minds back to a time in comic books when the various elements Moore introduced in this strip weren't considered to be utter cliches and intellectual property in the public domain for any half-competent Moore-thief to swipe whole and use in their own work, nonetheless, that time was really not so long ago.

In MIRACLEMAN, we were presented with a hero who had been more or less trapped in his normal, mundane civilian identity for decades due to that civilian identity's traumatic amnesia, who, under stress, suddenly remembers the 'magic word' he has dreamed about recurrently for years now, and upon speaking it, suddenly finds himself transformed into this godlike version of himself with vast, unstoppable powers, including a superhuman capacity at very nearly every normal human function, physical and mental, as well as typical 'Superman' type powers without the various fillips, like special vision and other perceptions, which in fact, simply lay dormant and undeveloped within him.

As the strip unfolded, Moore supplied a steadily increasing flow of logical puzzle pieces, eventually explaining away various apparently illogical details in perfectly reasonable ways (that most writers would have simply ignored, having only put in those details for the sake of convenience in the first place). What we as the readers wound up being presented with was an utter deconstruction and cynical discrediting of the entire standard Two Dimensional Superheroic Mythos at that time, as Miracleman's rather derivative 'magic' origin, based on a strange astrophysicist conveying to a young boy the 'key harmonic of the universe' which, when spoken, would transform him into a mighty superbeing, turned out to be simply a hypnotically implanted false memory placed there by government scientists to cover up the truth, and to help control their experimental ubermensch's behavior.

Superheroes created by amoral government conspiracies. Origins and entire memory sequences that turn out to be false. The gradual rediscovery of the truth, and the relentless, and vividly credible, display of the consequences of superhumanity on real, realistically detailed characters with actual jobs, bills to pay, worries any of us could recognize and relate to, and sex lives. The eventual application of vast superhuman powers to the reshaping of human culture into a benevolently governed social utopia. All these things that nowadays, trendy young writers simply press a key on their computers in order to automatically incorporate into their latest series proposal or character design, but which had never been even remotely a part of the cape-and-cowl mythology before Alan Moore wove his own particularly brilliant version of a superheroic tapestry for all to... well... marvel at.

The Four Dimensional Superhero Continuum, incorporating Change, and transforming the superhero sub-genre's reality into what I have, in other articles, called 'hyper-reality', had been brought into being. And, as with the dawn of the Three Dimensional Continuum in 1962, the world would never be the same.

It must be noted at this point that unfortunately, a great many lesser talents than Moore have consistently, in staring at the shiny, gleaming brilliance of Four Dimensional Superheroics, mistaken the dirty bathwater for the squeaky clean baby. Moore presented characters capable of realistic change and growth whose behavior had a realistic impact on their social continuum, thus furthering yet more change, and who were capable of evolving, or devolving, from one moral standard to another, and who lived in a world filled with credible, realistic details, some of which were positive (all of Moore's superhumans, at one point or another, are transformed and driven by truly loving and intimate relationships, well, except Rorschach, but he's just nuts), others of which are negative (some of Moore's characters live in squalor, surrounded by dehumanizing sleaze, and take ruthlessly pragmatic actions, especially Rorschach, now that I think about it, hmmmm... ).

Lesser luminaries than Moore seized on the darker elements of 4D Superheroics, as it's much easier and more viscerally exciting to reproduce such, and apparently confused Grim N Gritty for the essential element of the 'new superhero template'. And with the proliferation of shallow, relatively untalented 'writers' throughout superhero comics that was to begin in the late 1980s and dominate the field throughout the 1990s, Grim N Gritty came to be thought of as synonymous with brilliant innovation.

The reason for the confusion may be even simpler. An intrinsic part of Marvel's Three Dimensional Universe had always been what Frank Miller (or maybe it was John Byrne) once called 'the illusion of change', although none of the original Marvel founding fathers had ever articulated it that way.

Still, it was a fundamental shift from 2D Superheroics, in which things stayed the same, always, to 3D Superheroics, in which things fairly often SEEMED to change, although, after a while, they generally reverted to the way they'd been before. Two Dimensional Katar and Shiera Hol would always be happily, if apparently passionlessly, married (and never display more affection than the occasional dry kiss); on the other hand, Three Dimensional Reed and Sue Richards had their marriage go over more bumps than a 747 descending through turbulence into its landing pattern. For all the separations and threatened divorces and Reed shutting down Franklin's mind and Sue stalking off to live on her parents' ranch for six months or so, in the end, the couple always got over their troubles and stayed together... because that was the formula programmed into the book's basic concept, and it was the formula that worked.

Still, the illusion of change was a major difference from the stasis-bound character formulas at DC.

And so it was that Miller, having isolated this crucial 'illusion of change' element in the Three Dimensional Superheroic Continuum's recipe requiring Characterization and Consistency, upon taking over Marvel's flagging DAREDEVIL title as both writer and artist, decided to introduce some illusory changes himself.

While illustrating scripts by Roger McKenzie, Miller had seen Daredevil subtly redefined to incorporate elements of DC's more driven and vengeful Batman character, as McKenzie downplayed the concept of DD being blind Matt Murdock's 'release' persona and played up the idea that Matt, like Bruce Wayne, was actually obsessed with avenging the death of a parent at the hands of organized crime.

With that change of emphasis already in place, Miller may well have decided to transform the strip more fully, bringing in a more Japanese influence (that he would later demonstrate an obsession with), making the violence more graphic and prevalent, the art more stylized, the combat more martial arts oriented. That Miller's tenure on DD as writer and artist started at very nearly the same time as the winds of Change generated by MIRACLEMAN started blowing through the superhero subgenre was in retrospect an unfortunately influential coincidence; Miller may have felt, without actually articulating it, that he was making a bimonthly, little known Marvel Comic into something more 'modern', and felt that the changes he was introducing were justified, since the 'illusion of change' had now been supplanted by real, ACTUAL change as an element in the Superheroic Continuum.

All this is just hypothesis, and may be utter bullshit. Whatever the case may be, the one time changes Miller introduced became part of the constant, unchanging fabric of DAREDEVIL, pretty much proving that DD was not, at that point, a Four Dimensional Superhero. (Miller, perhaps with a better grasp on the concept, later returned and, in a truly Four Dimensional story arc, transformed the entire DD concept.) However, the changes Miller made also proved enormously popular and DAREDEVIL quickly became a fan favorite comic nearly rivaling X-MEN. Fans loved it, and so did other pros, and imitators quickly followed. Again, the darker elements are always easier to copy than the more positive ones, and by the end of the 1980s, many established heroes had been remade over into darker, more violent, and more 'morally pragmatic' versions of themselves.

That DC chose to hit its own universal re-set button right in the middle of these transformations in comics was... well, it was significant. Moore was demonstrating that Change could be a positive, even brilliant element in superhero comics, and Miller was showing that graphic violence, and heroes who behaved more like vigilantes and, well, spoiled, violent teenagers with no firm moral or ethical parameters, were enormously popular with the modern audience of comics fans. These seemed to be relatively simple formulas to follow, and so it was that when it came time to re-present the Modern Age versions of DC's Silver Age icons, Moore-ish change and Miller-esque violence, along with situational ethics and loose, ever shifting, 'practical' moral codes, were driving engines in each conceptual retooling.

Tim Truman's Hawkman was a former drug addict and patricide seeking redemption. Jim Owsley's Hal Jordan was a sniveling drunk whose 'fearless' personality had driven him into extremes of foolish and irresponsible behavior. Byrne's Superman could not, as a teenager, see anything morally questionable in using his clearly superhuman powers to cover himself in glory during unfair athletic and scholastic competitions with normal human kids, and continued to compete unfairly against normal humans in his adult guise as Clark Kent, establishing himself as a sought after journalist, expert at many fields, and writer, who despite all his aplomb and accomplishments, as well as his near complete invulnerability, sniveled like a three year old when a mob of curious people clustered around him at the site of his first public superfeat.

Grell's Green Arrow, impelled by the Black Canary's abuse at the hands of a gang of Japanese hoodlums, abandoned his high tech, gimmick oriented arrows and took to disarming criminals with maiming shots aimed at their extremities employing wickedly barbed hunting shafts. (This particular downgrade in Green Arrow's fighting style was stupid as well as vicious, as a superheroic archer can barely be credible surviving most pitched, superhero type conflicts when deploying cleverly designed, high tech, innovatively crafted arrows. Take away those gimmicks -- the bolo arrows, the smoke arrows, the gas arrows, the blast arrows, the oil slick arrows, and all the various other ways the superheroic archer has of taking on large groups of well armed opponents effectively -- and all you have left is someone supremely skilled and talented with an utterly archaic weapon, somehow emerging triumphant from stand up battles against multiple opponents with vastly superior firepower and/or superhuman abilities.)

So it may have been that the crucial element of the next evolutionary step in Superheroic Continuums, Change, became inextricably intermixed, in the minds of the majority of comic book writers and artists, especially young fans just turned professional, with the dark, grim, graphically violent cynicism that Frank Miller had demonstrated to be so popular in an obscure Marvel superhero title.

When DC hit its reset button, both radical new innovations... the fundamental sweep of actual Change, and the shallow, visceral, mean spirited stimulus of Grim N Gritty... were rippling through the superheroic subgenre like conceptual tsunami. Naturally, they wound up incorporated, in one form or another, in the Modern DC Universe that rose like a particularly stunted, hunchbacked and retarded phoenix from the ashes of DC's former universe, which, although Two Dimensional, had incorporated the creative concepts and lives' efforts of some of the most brilliant creators who had ever worked in the superhero industry.

To accomplish a particularly half assed and badly conceived transformation that few if anyone involved actually even rudimentarily understood from one evolutionary stage to another, the work of innovators, pioneers, and creative geniuses like Sheldon Mayer, Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox, John Broome, Cary Bates, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, Bob Kane, Edmond Hamilton, Curt Swan, Mort Weisenberger, Bill Finger, Carmine Infantino, Joe Simon, and Jack Kirby, was replaced by the half witted, fumble fingered conceptual scrabblings and scribbles of a bunch of artists who had used their commercial popularity with barely literate teenagers to coerce and extort their ways into creative posts they were not competent to hold or execute.

It should come as no surprise that when particularly gifted non-writers like John Byrne, Mike Grell, Tim Truman, George Perez, and Keith Giffen re-did the DC Universe, they were unduly impressed by the work of actual writers, and sought to incorporate elements of that work, as best they could, into their own inadequate efforts.

(I should point out, for the sake of fairness, that John Byrne has a great deal of artistic talent, although he's a terrible writer and seems to be a fair louse of a human being; George Perez, while in my opinion a mediocre at best writer and poor plotter whom I personally would never have entrusted the revision of a Golden Age icon like Wonder Woman to, is an astonishingly gifted artist and seems to be an extremely pleasant person. Grell, Truman, and Giffen I have no personal experience of, but I don't think any of them draw particularly well, and at that, they draw a great deal better than they write.)

The Marvel Universe, as previously noted, has never, to date, been subjected to the same kind of comprehensive re-set as DC was in their own CRISIS, and as such, what aspects of hyper-reality and 4D Superheroics have been incorporated into the MU have been done in a limited fashion, as new characters were created or old, discontinued ones were updated.

HEROES REBORN was, arguably, based around the various ideals of Change that are fundamental to 4D Superheroics, but it was designed by imaginative mongoloids, and fortunately, it was just a sales stunt. While it seemed torturously endless (and nearly booted all interest I had in the Marvel Universe out the window forever), it's been pretty much ignored since.

Jim Shooter's New Universe, on the other hand, was a pretty direct and irrefutable attempt to create a 4D Superheroic Continuum from scratch, and had Shooter not been about to reap the whirlwind of dislike, scorn, and contempt from the winds of discord and arrogance he had sown for years among his fellow professionals and their fans, it might have prospered and become something quite astonishing. As it was, in isolated areas - Shooter's own STAR BRAND, Fabian Nicieza's PSI FORCE and Peter David's JUSTICE, most notably - it showed remarkable promise, before it finally fell apart in a welter of mean spirited animus aimed at its creator. Although even in its dissolution, certain bright sparks, like Cary Bates' riveting demolition of the SPITFIRE AND THE TROUBLESHOOTERS concept, were thrown off.

For the most part, the predominant fictional superhero continuum existing here, in the 21st Century, remains mainly Three Dimensional. Both Marvel and DC frequently incorporate the illusion of change to generate 'buzz' in their various titles, but in point of fact, each title seems to have a set editorial 'template' that, once a particular story arc runs its course, it more or less reverts to.

DC's overall lack of universal Consistency tends to make its own 'illusions of change' rather more chaotic, inconsistent, and unreliable, though, and the recent ascent to power of Joe Quesada at Marvel, with his editorial policies of green lighting any project with a fan favorite name attached to it no matter how disruptive of continuity that project might potentially be, seems to indicate that whether anyone actually articulately realizes it or not, both the MU and DC's 'Original Universe' are well on their way to, not evolving into actual Fourth Dimensional Superhero Continuums, but devolving into random conceptual chaos whose peaks and valleys and lack of any discernable shape or outline will be primarily driven by short term profit taking.

Rumors now sweeping through the industry that Grant Morrison will be involved in some sort of X-comic coming this summer that will 'change the Marvel Universe forever' could, as most such rumors have in the past, turn out to be little more than hot air (The Death of Superman is perhaps the ultimate example of a poorly conceived, wretchedly executed, marketing stunt story arc that was touted as being something that would 'change comics forever', and that wound up having no lasting impact on continuity... or DC's ephemeral non-continuity, anyway... once it ran its course)... but in today's increasingly desperate atmosphere of "for god's sake, DO SOMETHING!" at both companies, these rumors could also turn out to have substance to them, as well.

Still, attempts to implement any sort of real Change in either superheroic continuum, as they currently stand, are conceptually abortive and pretty much doomed to accomplishing nothing positive, for the simple reason that both continuums are still, fundamentally, not Four Dimensional, and as such, will not incorporate Change well. (DC's, in fact, is not even coherently Three Dimensional; it's a half assed, freakish evolutionary Missing Link between Two Dimensional and Three Dimensional continuums that badly needs to be put out of its misery.)

To transform either universe/continuity into actual Four Dimensionalism, a quantum phase shift would have to be accomplished, and one of the first things that would have to be abandoned is both publishers' decades long, false to fact, and utterly ruinous devotion to collapsing entropy as an intrinsic part of their internal timelines.

Instead of constantly updating their timelines so that their current comics always reflect their release date, thus enforcing a sense of timeless stasis at the direct expense of any credibility or rational, willing belief any long term reader might be able to repose in their past continuity, both universes could incorporate a sensibly entropic internal timeline, embracing as an intrinsic part of their storytelling the natural aging and generational replacement process. This would free the various writers, artists, and editors to tell stories in which characters aged naturally and in which Change was an essential thematic element, allowing the development of multigenerational continuities told through titles and series each set in different historical periods, with perhaps the same characters appearing from one title to the next at different ages and stages of their lives.

Given that both DC and Marvel are subsidiaries to vast corporate conglomerates that care about absolutely nothing except the commercial bottom line, it's unlikely that any such sweeping, innovative, evolutionary step forward would ever be initiated. Instead, we seem to be entering a sort of Cheyne-Stokes respiration period for the comic book industry as a whole, in which corporate moneymen and shareholders are in a mostly unwitting race with the development of competing entertainment technologies to milk every last conceivable drop of profits out of an industry, medium, and subgenre that has been on the verge of becoming obsolete for the past decade, and that gets closer and closer to financial and technological lack of viability with each passing year.

While the superhuman, and even the superheroic, mythos seems to have an enduring appeal, and will therefore most likely survive in other medias and other forms well beyond the death of the two dimensional comic book artform, nonetheless, if it is to evolve further, it would seem it will have to do so in those other medias and artforms.

Even the recent commercial and conceptual success of Alan Moore's undeniably Four Dimensional Superheroic Continuum being presented in America's Best Comics seems too dependent on the uniquely iconoclastic and utterly irreplaceable brilliance of one man, and when you combine that with the comic book medium's grim, and worse, brief, apparent future, we can see that if the Superheroic Continuum is to continue to evolve, it most likely will not be in comic books.

Since I'm a comic book fan, I naturally both resent this, and wish I could reject it. Since, in addition to being a comic book fan, I'm a fan of the superheroic mythos who has longed to see the Marvel and DC Universe depicted in a Four Dimensional fashion since I was an adolescent, with characters allowed to age naturally and gradually be replaced by their own descendents or conceptual heirs, it saddens and frustrates me to have to realize that the inevitable exploitation of the superheroic mythos by uncaring corporate concepts will most likely keep this from ever actually happening.

It may even be that there is a Fifth Dimensional evolutionary phase shift in the offing, as I've heard rumbles and whispers of some sort of 'post-superhero' that is supposed to be the 'coming thing' in the Superheroic Mythos. I don't know anything beyond that phrase... but I can guess, and I don't think it's anything I'm going to enjoy.

Instinctively, I tend to think that the Marvel Universe was at its best in its burgeoning beginning as a Three Dimensional Continuum, and that DC was at its best in its Two Dimensional days... but I also realize that those perceptions may be erroneous, because as a kid, I mistook Marvel's 'illusion of change' for the real thing, and thus, until I had my nose rubbed in it by a college pal, I had always thought that the Marvel Universe was a Fourth Dimensional Superhero Continuum.

(Honestly, the first time the 'illusion of change' and the intrinsic collapsing entropy of Marvel and DC's timelines was explained to me, I wanted to puke. And I still do. To my mind, such false to observed fact fictional contrivances are vile, objectionable, and should not be tolerated or validated by men or women of good will anywhere.)

As for DC being at its best in its Two Dimensional era, well... it was, but hell, there's no mystery there; back in its Golden and Silver Age eras, DC employed writers like Jim Shooter, Edmond Hamilton, Alfred Bester, Bob Haney, Gardner Fox, John Broome, Cary Bates, and Frank Robbins, and had artists like Gil Kane, Mike Sekowsky, Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger, Nick Cardy, Michael Kaluta, Joe Kubert, Neal Adams, Frank Robbins, Jack Kirby, and Carmine Infantino... of COURSE they were at their best then! Or at least, seemed to be, in comparison to DC at present, in which the only writer I'd even begin to rank in that kind of company is Tom Peyer.

I'll point out, though, while I'm thinking of it, that long before Crisis, DC did go through a very brief period where some isolated elements of its continuity, and characters, became fully Three Dimensional for a very short lived time: specifically, when Steve Englehart took over writing DETECTIVE COMICS, MR. MIRACLE, and JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA for an all too quickly terminated duration, and for that single, shining, ephemeral moment, those concepts and characters inflated from Two Dimensional to Three Dimensional in a manner that embodied both Consistency and Characterization that DC had not seen before, and has only spottily seen since, in places like Stern's STARMAN and POWER OF THE ATOM, and any of the far too rare and scattered stories written by Alan Brennert.

Yet these unfortunately far too sporadic and undeveloped instances of Three Dimensional and, in some ways, even Four Dimensional Superheroic Continuums, smack dab in the midst of the DC Universe, show that it could be done, and can be done. Unfortunately, all you need are good writers who actually care about and respect the characters and concepts they're entrusted with, and editors who will encourage them to do right by those concepts... and that's like me saying that the only thing I need to become an eccentric millionaire is the million dollars.

Still, the other thing all this shows... and mind you, I'm aware that the above tediously elaborated hypotheses are only that, and that I'm no one special; I don't have a degree, or any professional experience in comics, and ultimately, this could all be a bunch of crap... but, still, if there's any validity to any of this bluster and b.s., then another thing it shows is that good superhero comics can be created at any stage of the evolution of the superheroic continuum... First, Second, Third, or Fourth Dimension... assuming you've got good ideas, good scripts, and good artwork.

Which brings us right back around to, what a pity it is that all those things seem to be in such short supply in modern day comics... of any dimension.

* * * * * * * * *

In lieu of my usual smart ass closing comment, I'll append as a post script something I glossed over at the start of this: my own personal reasons for placing the end of Marvel's Silver Age with the publication of GIANT SIZE X-MEN #1, and the end of DC's with CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS.

First, both dates have been mentioned to me independently as gravestone markers for the Silver Age; however, those who adopt them seem to adopt, unthinkingly, the standard belief about the Silver Age... namely, that it was all one thing that covered both mainstream comics companies at that time universally and generically.

To my mind, that seems wrong, in the same way it also seems wrong to even talk about 'the Silver Age' as applying to the various minor, competing publishers of superhero comics during that time period, like Archie's Mighty Comics, or the abortive Dell Superheroes line, or whoever it was who published that horrible android Captain Marvel who split into his component body parts.

I think Gold Key and even Harvey might have published some comics at the time that were arguably in the superhero conceptual sphere, as well. Applying the title "Silver Age" to any of that stuff just seems wrong to me, and I'm a right brain kind of guy. I do tend to overanalyze stuff, and I believe in logic and reason, but I also believe in intuition, and am a general supporter of the notion that 'a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds'. It seems to me that it takes more to be 'Silver Age' than to have published a comic featuring some superhuman in a tight costume at some point in the 1960s. Otherwise, I could call the superhero comics I wrote and Jake Marek drew back in high school 'Silver Age', and that strikes me as really silly.

If we therefore... or I therefore, you can do what you want... proceed from the premise that 'Silver Age' only applied to DC and Marvel Comics (which is, admittedly, arguable, given that 'Golden Age' seems to apply to everyone who ever published a comic in the 1940s and early 50s, from Fawcett to American House to EC to Harvey, so suddenly limiting the term 'Silver Age' this way does seem historically arbitrary... but screw it, every column I write is arbitrary, and arbitrary, regardless of what many people think, is no more a universal insult than 'opinionated'), then there's no reason to believe that it has to apply EQUALLY to both companies.

Only if we accept that it is a concrete, discrete, and solidly defined tag that is only used to label a very specific historical period do we have to accept that concept... and, well, if we accept that, then we have to accept the emotional silliness of calling Pureheart the Powerful and Supergoof and Sarge Steel and the Fat Fury 'Silver Age' characters. Which I reject categorically, but I admit, my reasoning my have holes shot through it, as I'm emotionally reluctant to accept the Inferior Five as 'Silver Age' characters, too.

Still, going on from there, with only the Marvel and DC superhero continuums included in my personal perception of what is covered by the label 'Silver Age' (which, whether we like it or not, is impregnated with emotional associations for all superhero comics fans of my age or older, or even somewhat younger, and therefore has come to mean more than a simple temporal stretch from THIS date to THAT date), it becomes clear to me that there is no reason to accept that at both publishing companies, this strange era we call 'the Silver Age' without any agreement whatsoever as to what we really mean by that or when it started or ended... does not have to have ended at the same time for both companies... which is something that most people assume it does. But consider this: it didn't START at the same time for both companies, so why should it have ENDED at the same time for both companies?

Now, you can say that's slippery; the reason the Silver Age begins at different times for Marvel and DC is that one company's publication of superhero comics predates the other. DC or its direct predecessors was publishing superhero comics continually since the Golden Age, while Marvel spent the 50s publishing bad monster and horror comics and did not get into superheroics until DC showed there was a market for them again, and that attempts to take advantage of that market would no longer be met with howling PTA lynch mobs and Congressional sub committees determined to blame juvenile delinquency, homosexuality, and Communist subversion of the American Way on four color superhero funny books.

Which may or may not be a good point, but nonetheless, I'm sticking to my guns: if the Silver Age begins for DC in either 1956 (with the debut in SHOWCASE of the Silver Age Flash) or in 1961 (with the debut in FLASH of the Earth-1/Earth-2 dichotomy, and I have no preference, you pays your money and you takes your choice), and for Marvel in 1962 with FANTASTIC FOUR #1, then I see no reason in the world why it cannot end in, I believe, 1975 with the publication of GIANT SIZE X MEN #1 for Marvel, and in, again, from a faulty memory, 1985 or thereabouts, with the publication of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, for DC.

Given that I was born in 1961 (late 1961) the Silver Age either predates me or came along pretty much when I did, so its actual birthday doesn't trouble me. It's date of death, though, is of considerable importance to me, and, well, that's what I'm writing about now.

In order to figure out when the Silver Age ended (for you), you have to figure out what the Silver Age meant (to you). Get a reasonable grasp on that, and you can also get a reasonable grasp on when that particular element departed from comics (for you).

To me, primarily, what the Silver Age meant, at both companies, was a certain element of being larger than life... of being a fantasy, and somewhat intrinsically unrealistic... not in a bad way, but in a good way, in that the Silver Age, like the Golden Age before it, depicted fictional realities and imaginary universes in which there were actual Heroes who were better than real people... not just more competent or more powerful, but ethically and morally superior to real people, and who undertook to protect the weaker, more normal folks from the depredations of relentless Evil.

These were also universes where Evil was a simpler, more straightforward, and easily detectable thing, that could be resoundingly defeated, at least for a little while, by clean living, valiant action, and a solid right hook to the jaw. These universes were not realistic, no, of course they weren't, but the ways in which they varied from the reality we all had to live in made them better... places it was fun to escape to, places any sane kid, or young at heart adult, would have instantly leapt through any open portal to, given a second's opportunity to do so.

For me, the long, slow drain of that pleasant, escapist fantasy element from the Marvel Universe began with GIANT SIZE X-MEN #1. Oh, it's not an exact spot; the life had been sucked out of the Fantastic Four well prior to that, and Spider-Man had been going through the motions since Goodwin stopped writing it, and the last vestiges of the real Silver Age Captain America and AVENGERS had gone with Steve Englehart... and it doesn't have to stay dead, either; Kurt Busiek has done a creditable job of resurrecting the Silver Age, in a necessarily limited fashion, in his current run on AVENGERS. Once more, Earth's Mightiest Heroes have become larger than life and truly heroic for me, and while the actual stories are... a little bit duller and dimmer... than the stuff Lee and Englehart gave us, still, they're light years, parsecs, entire galactic units, superior to nearly everything else being done in the Marvel Universe now, with the exception of Priest's BLACK PANTHER.

However, while it may not be an exact spot, the publication of GS X-MEN #1 to me marks something very exact... the moment when the Marvel editorial staff made a conscious decision to forget about their glorious, larger than life past, stop trying to measure up to, and even surpass (as Englehart and Gerber had) the exalted standards of Kirby, Lee, and Ditko... and instead, set out to produce flashy, style over substance, trendy, faddish material guaranteed to make a quick buck by pandering to whatever the lowest and most common instincts of their target audience might happen to be.

In other words, Marvel stopped trying to create stories about Heroes, or even just people with super powers, and started creating merchandise... Product... designed to appeal to carefully selected target audiences. And I realize that's a completely unfair and unjust generalization, and I don't care.

Similarly, to my mind, DC took pretty much the same step with CRISIS. Oh, they'd been trying to rip off Marvel's Three Dimensional approach and key into their target audience for ten years by the time they decided to do it across their entire line at once, but it wasn't until CRISIS that they made a concerted, committed effort. Prior to that, it had been scattershot and inconsistent, and even when Cary Bates was given commercially driven, short sighted, and coldly calculated orders to make Superman 'more like the movies' and Flash 'darker and more realistic', it was obvious to all of us still reading the books that Cary really cared about the characters.

It wasn't until NEW TEEN TITANS #1 that we really saw corporate detachment unleashed big time in the DC Universe, and it wasn't until CRISIS that DC incorporated that corporate detachment consciously, across their entire continuity, in a calculated attempt to access a specifically targeted market segment.

And, in writing all this, it occurs to me that what I'm actually saying is that, to me, the Silver Age represents the era when the superheroes I loved as a kid... still had souls. And the death of the Silver Age, therefore, to me, is defined by those moments when the people entrusted with the fate and well-being of those souls... sold them, and me, and everyone else who loved those characters, right down the river, in exchange for stock options and HMO coverage and a nice 401K package and, for all I know, free goddam cable and a time share condo in the Bahamas.

Every once in a while since then, someone who still cares about the characters somehow manages to sneak through the net and, for a time, puts some soul back into one, two, three, or half a dozen of them.

For a while.

But once upon a time, in what these days seems like a galaxy far, far away... all superheroes, and supervillains, sidekicks and love interests, editors in chief and eccentric scientists, extradimensional imps and alien super-pets... all of those weird, motley, garish, four colored denizens and citizens of the imaginary worlds so many of us lived in for so much of our childhoods... every last one of those wondrous weirdos had souls. And those of us who were part time residents of that awe inspiring epoch, and who would have happily moved there if we just could have figured out how... we called that impossible, astonishingly golden era, perhaps ironically, the Silver Age.

It was a time when titans walked the Earth, and pounded typewriters, and wielded pencils and erasers and inkpots and brushes, and anyone with twenty cents could, for fifteen minutes at a time, teleport up to a satellite headquarters, run round the world fifteen times in a single second, shout "AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!" as a costumed man on a winged horse flew above Manhattan spraying Adhesive X across a looming concrete skyline, swing on a web beneath the shadow of a cackling maniac on a bat shaped jet glider, or become a raging half ton of unfettered emerald fury with a childlike sense of wonder in frayed purple pants that were always torn at the knees.

We could fly on wings and antigravity chest straps or swim in the darkest ocean depths, talk to birds or fish, hurl ourselves counterclockwise around the Earth's equator at translight speeds to travel into tomorrow and meet our superpowered superheroic teenage friends in a bright and shiny future patroled by Science Police.

We could climb a wall with a Caped Crusader, look up and see a batshaped shadow cast on a passing cloudbank, feel a lump form in our throats and a delighted smile break across our faces as a man who had always thought he was the last survivor of a doomed planet found a family he never thought he'd have in the form of an adorable, cheerful little blond haired supergirl who was actually his cousin.

It was a time of legend - and the world would never be the same.

It came upon us mostly unnoticed and none of us can agree on when it left. But we all know it's gone.

Those of us who lived there for a little while mourn it to ourselves, quietly... quietly... because so many of you don't understand. You read the reprints and you think you get it, some of it, a little of it... you think you do, but honestly, it was so corny, and silly, and unrealistic... wasn't it?

Sure it was.

Take my word for it.

It was a time of legend...

...and the world will never be the same.

* * * * * * * * * * *

John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. He's not feeling particularly witty right now, so he'll forego any further smart ass remarks and just ask you to direct all reasonably polite, or at least, entertaining, commentary to the thread below. Thanks.

4 Comments:

Blogger Chris Tolworthy said...

You blog hasn't been updated since last August, so I doubt you'll see this, but I'd like to steal some of your ideas for my web site. I agree with nearly everything you've said (what I've read anyway)
http://www.zaksite.co.uk/lockjaw/realtime.htm
Call me! tolworthy@hotmail.com

or I'll use the stuff anyway. (Highly edited of course!)

7:05 AM  
Blogger Chris Tolworthy said...

OK, I've since read a lot more of your posts, and there are a FEW little things you have yet to persuade me on, but I still think you have a ton of good ideas that are worth stealing.

7:24 AM  
Anonymous Midtown Typesetting said...

Hey, if you still know Jake Marek, please pass along a message from an old coot named Ralph Bryde [must be in a raspy voice]... "BE GOOD!"

Sorry, it's an inside joke.

3:52 PM  
Blogger Darci said...

See http://forums.comicbookresources.com/showthread.php?354601-quot-the-illusion-of-change-quot-did-Stan-Lee-ever-say-it about the search for the "Illusion of change" originator. They don't come to an answer, but seem to point to Stan Lee. Given their timeline of between 1972 and 1975, that seems unlikely. To me, it's more likely one of the merry-go-round of EiCs that followed Roy Thomas and preceded Archie Goodwin.

Chris's http://zak-site.com/Great-American-Novel/marvel_time.html is still worth reading at its new location.

8:55 PM  

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