by KC Carlson
PREVIOUSLY ON KC COLUMN: KC was moaning that “Continuity is Hard!” Then he mumbled something about how documenting sliding timelines might be all his fault.
And that’s one to grow on.
It’s getting late, now it’s time to go
It’s over the top now, it’s out of control
Just a matter of time ‘til the zero hour
lyric by Peter Case. Zero Hour performed by The Plimsouls, 1981.
It all began when I was editing Zero Hour for DC back in 1994. Part of the deal with Zero Hour was that we were kind of trying to mop-up some of the still-unanswered continuity questions hanging over the DCU since the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths several years prior — as well as tell a great, rollicking, cosmic adventure story with big consequences for several characters, plus introduce some new ones. And yes, I was the first one to know that we weren’t 100% successful with that goal. Stubbornness on the part of some other editors and creators meant that we didn’t get to check off every box on Dan Jurgens’ and my “wish list” of things-to-do. (But we came darn close!) And most fans seemed to really enjoy the actual story and its consequences for the DC characters.
Some of the disappointment of not fully achieving that continuity goal was alleviated by the opportunity to do something that not even the Crisis guys got to do — produce a definitive timeline for the “new” DC Universe. Of course, Marv Wolfman and George Pérez did eventually team again for the beautiful History of the DC Universe — a mind-boggling chronology of the post-Crisis DCU. But as a fan, I was slightly disappointed that there were no specific dates mentioned in the project. (Only later did I understand why.) I wanted the Zero Hour timeline to be more specific.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have much space. The idea of the timeline came up fairly late in the process, and I believe it was only approved to go after the initial sales figures had come in for the early issues of the series, which thankfully were huge! So I got a six-page back cover fold-out to play with, and Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway were approved to provide all-new spot art for the project. And that only happened because somehow, after all the changes and re-thinking and approvals, Zero Hour actually came in ahead of schedule.
It had to. DC’s Marketing Department had decided that since the final issue (#0) of Zero Hour was scheduled to ship a few days after that year’s San Diego Comic-Con, it would be a great idea to give a free black & white “ashcan” of the final issue to all the attendees of that year’s Zero Hour panel. Since Dan and Jerry and I were all going to be there — on stage — we decided that this was something that was going to have to happen — or we were going to be ripped to shreds Day of the Locust-style. Since I don’t think Dan or Jerry (or letterer Gaspar Saladino or colorist Gregory Wright) ever missed a deadline in their lives, it was thankfully (for me anyway) a no-brainer that it would all happen on time. And so Dan and Jerry also had time to illustrate the timeline.
Time on Our Hands
Writing the timeline was going to be a little more difficult. Since there was limited space and (literally) billions of years to cover, I was only going to have space to list the first appearances of most of DC’s most popular characters and biggest events. Luckily, I had some reference to help me. I used Marv and George’s History of the DC Universe for the basic chronology, and I had access to Jerry Bails’ various Golden Age indices for first publication dates for all the Golden Agers. You’ll note on the actual timeline that all of those heroes are listed according to the year of their first publication. That was the easy part.
When I got to the Silver Age characters, I started to realize that DC shouldn’t list them by their original publication dates for several reasons — the most important of which was that this was a timeline of how the characters related to each other within the DCU. That status was largely changed post-Crisis, with “reboots” like Superman: Man of Steel, Batman Year One, early issues of the Pérez Wonder Woman, Crisis itself, Legends, and Zero Hour itself. These and many other very important post-Crisis DC titles changed the status quo of how and when the DC characters first appeared.
At the time, there were a lot of publishing histories and timelines, none of which were really useful in preparing this particular time line. If we said that the Barry Allen Flash first appeared in 1956, it made him sound really old (ironically, it was also the year that I first appeared — and I had to not think about that), and it no longer meant anything to the timeline of events because everybody else’s origins had changed, including the order of when they had appeared.
About this time, rather than keep banging my head on my desk (Terri Cunningham was getting very concerned), I called in Bob Greenberger, DC’s “Continuity Cop”, who knew everything — and yet had no real authority to enforce anything — regarding continuity. Actually, Bob was in on discussions about this from the beginning, but I wanted to take a first stab at this on my own. I didn’t get very far. Between the two of us (and many rewrites), we got it down to a rough outline of what we could do on our own. The goal at this point was to get a document that we could show to the other editors, certain editorial executives, and a few key continuity-oriented creators for their comments.
Time NOT on Our Side
I think that Bob and I may have come up with the “X Years Ago” identifications after referring to some fan-produced timelines, although unfortunately neither of us remembers details about those. Then, we had to wait to get official confirmation of exactly how old the “sliding” part of the new DC Universe was from Point A (the beginning of the “New Heroic Age”) to Point B (the present). At that time, Bob and I estimated that it was somewhere between 10 and 12 years long. It was decided upon high that it was to be 10 years. (That was in “real world” 1994. It might be 12 or 13 or more by now.)
[Aside: I understand that the sliding piece of the Marvel Universe is now “officially” around 10 years old, although certain continuity-minded Marvel folks may admit (in private) that it may actually be closer to 14.]
Super-compressing the timeline caused concern among some of the editors, as many seemingly unrelated things that had originally appeared years apart now got shoved closer together. For example, the Ray Palmer Atom, The Creeper, and the New Gods all appeared “9 Years Ago”– the same year that the original Doom Patrol “died”. Or the original Teen Titans formed only one year before the New Teen Titans formed, and that only happened one year before the original Crisis — compressing about 22 years of publishing into only three years of timeline. All of the original Titans were a major headache to deal with, leading to unhappy compromises all around. But how else to deal with a timeline that features both fixed and “sliding” events, as well as characters who are obviously “fixed” in age (Superman, Batman, etc.) coinciding with characters who obviously grow older (Dick Grayson/Robin, Kid Flash, Donna Troy)? Both Bob and I became very conscious of how difficult using a sliding timeline would be on the DCU.
Not everything on the timeline got super-compressed. We were acutely aware that we were building in an “elastic gap” of time between the WWII era, where everything is tied to a specific date, to the starting point of the now-sliding “New Heroic Era”. In 1994, that gap was approximately 50 years — something that originally caused us severe doubts about what we were doing. But what else to do to make the timeline work without aging the characters excessively? Today, this gap is over 65 years — making it extremely unlikely (in real-world terms) that any original JSA members (much less their children) might still be heroically active, without making up new, incredible circumstances for that to be possible.
Even Marvel is affected by this sliding gap of time in their Universe. The seminal modern Marvel Universe event — the Fantastic Four’s defining space flight — was originally set in the midst of the early Space Race, when space flight was truly dangerous and heroic. Now, thanks to the sliding timeline, that mission takes place just before Y2K — a time when space flights, while still dangerous, were largely routine and not quite as heroic as they once were. The FF origin could still stand as written, but taken out of its original historical context, it’s a lot less dramatic and awe-inspiring, without some serious tweaking.
Time for Everybody to Agree — Maybe
Everybody was remarkably considerate of the process of approving the DC timeline, especially those folks who obviously thought that continuity issues could be an impediment to telling good stories. They were incredibly generous in “playing along” with what we were trying to do. I learned some valuable lessons and respect with this exercise. When used properly, continuity should be a tool to assist in storytelling, not an excuse for telling a potentially bad or boring (which is worse?) story. Gracious post-thanks go out to Archie Goodwin, Denny O’Neil and all the Bat-Guys (Scott, Darren, and Gorf), for what turned out to be some of the longest and most frustrating discussions, but also absolutely the most informative — even when it wasn’t about continuity.
My memory of specific details about certain entries on the timeline is long gone, and we did get the opportunity to “tweak” some of the info in the more detailed individual timelines that appeared in the early issues of DC Secret Files a few years later. (Although due to the many hands involved in producing those, there are occasional and unfortunate contradictions when various timelines are compared.) I do remember one detail that we could have locked down to a specific year — the date that the original JSA disbanded — but didn’t because we were requested not to, most likely from Paul Levitz, who wrote the still-stunning story of how it actually happened. The reason why is lost in the mist of my brain. (And it most likely boiled down to “Because Paul asked us to.”)
Zero Hour was probably the most intense project that I ever worked on at DC (although attempting to wrangle a gaggle of Superman creators is a close second — and something I ultimately failed at doing), yet ironically, it’s the project I remember the least about — probably because of the intensity involved in its coordination. Somewhere accompanying this article is a picture (snapped by Beau Smith) of myself and Jerry Ordway at the DC booth where we (and Dan Jurgens) sat for most of the entire four days of Comic-Con signing Zero Hour stuff. (It’s right above this paragraph – Roger.) That’s me with the deer-in-the-headlights stare. I seriously don’t remember doing anything else at the Con — and that includes being on the Zero Hour panel. Complete blank. Except for the really giant room of people, just before the flop-sweat kicked in.
After we got back to NYC, I completely zoned-out in the first post-Zero Hour editorial meeting. That was the first one in probably six months in which I wasn’t constantly yammering about the other editors getting plot or script changes or art corrections to me ASAP for hours on end. While I was asleep, my fellow editors passed around a copy of Zero Hour #0 (the famously “blank” cover), which they all signed (or sketched on). You can’t even begin to know how much having an Archie Goodwin Batman head means to me. That cover is easily one of my most cherished momentos of my time at DC.
Probably the most gratifying thing to come out of the Zero Hour timeline is that a few weeks after it was originally published, a giant blow-up facsimile of it was framed and mounted permanently on the wall in the DC Comics offices near the 5th floor (DC Editorial) lobby. I never found out who was responsible for selecting and putting it up (I suspect that Mr. Levitz might have had a hand in it), and I was quite gratified when I occasionally spotted both visitors and my fellow editors gazing at it up close (perhaps researching something?).
I have no idea if it’s still there, as I haven’t visited the offices for quite awhile. As the recent DC Universe Legacies miniseries recounted, it’s not entirely accurate anymore (sadly, neither is The History of the DC Universe). And that’s actually kinda how it should be. The DC Universe — as well as ALL fictional universes — should be an ever-evolving, ever-dynamic, living thing, no matter how difficult it is for countintity-minded guys to quantify and explain.
I just wish there would more often be logic and common sense applied while revising… But that’s a whole other column. (And probably not by me. Zero Hour and the Legion pretty much cured me of the need to explain everything… except maybe in my own head.)
KC CARLSON will probably not remember that he wrote this column five years from now, because it will most likely be written out of whichever continuity that it currently is in. So there.
Heartfelt thanks to Bob Greenberger, both then and now.