“A whole tangle and labyrinth — I’m convinced that she’s somewhere there!”
It’s the same old story. You start out with another Earth on the opposite side of the sun, where all the good people are evil, and everyone’s got a mustache except the people who are supposed to have mustaches. But you can’t leave well enough alone.
Pretty soon, you’ve got people from the other universe popping up to cause trouble. They move into your house and call themselves Cassandra, and refuse to admit that they’re the spinoff. They demand crossovers and reboots and flash-forwards, rewriting time to suit their own purposes. Before you know it, you’ve got Skaro Daleks fighting Necros Daleks, and 616-Thor taking a spare hammer from Ultimate Thor, and two completely different ways for Edith Collins to die, and anything that you do to try to fix the problem only makes everything worse.
They say that those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it, but it turns out the people who do remember the past repeat it even more. It’s gonna get repeated either way.
A while back, we discussed “Flash of Two Worlds!” — the 1961 DC Comics story that first introduced the idea of superhero parallel universes. Barry Allen, aka the Flash, accidentally vibrated himself from his hometown in Central City into a strange town called Keystone City, the home of Jay Garrick, aka the Flash, and the two Flashes from opposite ends of the multiverse fought a bunch of old-timey villains by sticking diamonds in their ears and dancing to fiddle music. After this wacky adventure, Barry just vibrated himself back home, and had no idea that he’d permanently ruined DC Comics forever.
You see, back in the late 1950s, DC kinda-sorta soft rebooted its superhero comics, which they didn’t think was very complicated, because nobody cared. This was a miscalculation based on the idea that ten-year-olds forget everything.
I’ll start at the beginning. Superman first appeared in Action Comics in 1938, and then Batman in Detective Comics in 1939, and they were both really popular, so then there was a huge expansion of superheroes in 1940 in various comics — Hawkman and Doctor Fate and Hour-Man and the Spectre and the Sandman and the Flash and Green Lantern and so on. By 1941, they were all wrangled into a superteam called the Justice Society of America.
The Justice Society included all of the DC heroes who didn’t have their own titles, so Batman and Superman weren’t part of the team at first; they had to be retconned as “honorary members” later on. New heroes were added to the roster over the next ten years: Dr. Mid-Nite and Wildcat and Johnny Thunder and two different versions of the Red Tornado, and all the other people you never heard of.
So they all went on happily fighting Nazis and mad scientists and crime syndicates for the rest of the decade, until mid-World War II, when people stopped being interested in superheroes because they had other things on their minds. In 1951, All-Star Comics was renamed All-Star Western, and that was the end of the Justice Society of America.
In the late 50s, a new editor decided to give the old superheroes another try, so they introduced a new version of The Flash — Barry Allen this time, instead of Jay Garrick. That worked out, so they relaunched a bunch of revamped heroes, including a new Hawkman, a new Green Lantern, a new The Atom, and so on. Same superhero names, mostly the same powers, but different origins and civilian identities.
In some cases, the origins were really different, especially Hawkman. The original 1940s Hawkman was an archeologist named Carter Hall, who’s a reincarnation of Khufu, an ancient Egyptian prince. Khufu’s consort Shiera was also reincarnated as Carter’s girlfriend, Shiera Sanders. But the new Hawkman introduced in 1961 was a flying alien policeman from the planet Thanagar. Instead of Carter Hall, the alien Hawkman was named Katar Hol, and as a replacement for Shiera, Hawkman’s wife was a Hawkgirl named Shayera Hol. This turned out to cause a lot more problems than you’d imagine.
But the comics sold well, and everyone was happy, until Barry vibrated himself to Keystone City in 1961, and it turned out that the 1940s heroes lived in a parallel band of time, just like Alexis Stokes and Claude North and Dameon Edwards, who are the Dark Shadows equivalent of Dr. Mid-Nite.
But once they’d done that, they couldn’t leave it alone. They all figured that the ten-year-olds of 1961 wouldn’t remember the old Justice Society characters, because comic books automatically self-destruct after a while, rather than getting passed down to your younger cousins. They also figured that the people who were ten in 1941 were all killed at Pearl Harbor or something, and there was nobody alive with fond memories of the comics they’d published a decade ago. This turned out not to be the case.
So in 1963, the Flash had another time band-hopping adventure where he met up with the old Flash to fight an immortal villain named Vandal Savage, who’d imprisoned all of the Justice Society heroes in rectangular glass cuboids.
This was actually kind of a dream scenario — all the tedious Justice Society characters slabbed and put on display in an alternate universe that nobody cares about — but Barry has to go and free them all by running fast and vibrating, which is his answer to everything. At the end of the story, all the heroes in the Keystone City universe decide to come out of retirement and re-form the Justice Society, which is awkward, because they have an entirely different Wonder Woman.
And it’s not even two months later that they have a story called “Crisis on Earth-One!” which is just typical, you can’t leave superhero universes alone for five minutes without some sort of catastrophe.
This story involves both the Justice League of America, which is all the 1960s superheroes, and the Justice Society of America, which is the 1940s heroes. Just to make everything difficult, they’re calling the 1960s universe Earth-One and the 1940s universe Earth-Two, which kind of makes sense except chronologically it’s backwards, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who gets confused by it.
“Crisis on Earth-One!” is a massive two-issue crossover story with more characters than you can possibly imagine. The Justice League has nine characters in it, and the Justice Society has seven characters, which is way too many. In fact, there are so many characters in this story that they list them all on the first page and they forget to include Batman. How do you forget Batman? He’s sitting right there, holding hands with Superman and staring intently at a crystal ball that has the power to contact other dimensions.
We’re going to spend a minute looking at “Crisis on Earth-One”, because this is pretty much the whole problem. On page 2, Batman explains to the Justice League that three losers calling themselves the Crime Champions have challenged them to foil three simultaneous heists, because in DC comics, supervillains are always telling the heroes exactly where they’re going to be and what they’re going to be doing. It seems to me like they really want to be caught, and there’s clearly some kind of deeper issue there that we don’t need to get into right now.
But here’s how this is going to go. The heroes split up into three groups of three — the Atom, Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter will tackle the occult magician Felix Faust as he loots a sunken ship; Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern take on Chronos the time thief in his raid on the Powers City bank; and Superman, Green Arrow and the Flash will battle Doctor Alchemy, who’s going to boost an armored car using his Philosopher’s Stone. I have never heard of any of these villains before in my life.
Just two panels down the page, they introduce the Justice Society, who have also been challenged by three villains, and they also split up into three teams — the Atom, the Flash and Hawkman will fight the Fiddler; Green Lantern and Black Canary will take out the Wizard; and Hourman and Doctor Fate will turn up the heat on the Icicle.
That means this story includes two different versions of the Flash, two versions of Green Lantern and two versions of the Atom all in one story, plus six different villains, and then it gets so much more confusing from there.
Because these villains that I’ve never heard of are unbelievably successful. Each one manages to take down a superteam in three pages or less.
For example, Dr. Alchemy has turned his Philosopher’s Stone into a Matter Transformer, which he uses to grab an armored car. Then he turns a telephone pole and a fire hydrant into kryptonite to take down Superman, he turns Green Arrow’s arrows into weeds for some reason, and he somehow off-panel took care of the Flash so that he never even shows up for the fight.
It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. No villain can best Superman; he’s indestructible and he has laser beam eyes. But here he is, rendered helpless by a fire hydrant.
It’s the same with all the others; the villains completely dominate in both universes. And then the Earth-One villains and the Earth-Two villains meet up in a little bubble of vibratory energy created by the Fiddler, which sits “on the rim of the twin earths,” whatever that means, and there you are, sixteen superheroes utterly stymied by guys named Felix Faust and the Icicle.
Plus it turns out that while they were doing that, they also captured both Flashes in vibratory traps that counter-vibrate to their vibratory speeds — everything in DC comics vibrates like crazy — keeping them trapped forever. The Flashes remain stuck in these bubbles for at least a couple of days, and nobody notices they’re gone.
So dig this: the villains decide that they’re going to enjoy all of their new-found wealth by taking vacations in each other’s universes, where no one will recognize them. But the Earth-Two villains, vacationing on Earth-One at Casino Town, U.S.A., decide that they’re bored and they want to challenge the Justice League to another showdown.
But, just to make everybody’s head explode, the Earth-Two villains decide to pull their next caper dressed as the Earth-One villains. They also create magical hidden traps, each made of a different material, and when the Earth-One heroes touch each of the enchanted materials, they’ll be transported back to their headquarters. It’s unclear why they even need to do this.
So see if you can figure this one out. The Icicle, who’s pretending to be Chronos, tricks Batman into touching metal, hurls Wonder Woman against an enchanted moose head and runs Green Lantern into yellow glass; the Wizard, dressed as Dr. Alchemy, gets Superman to touch rubber and Green Arrow to touch wood; and the Fiddler, disguised as Felix Faust, dumps Aquaman into sand, throws a jewel at the Atom, and persuades the Martian Manhunter to dive into water.
Once all eight heroes have touched the different elements, they’re spirited back to their Justice League headquarters, where they discover that they can’t escape. Also, they haven’t noticed that the Flash is missing yet.
This is the most complicated comic book I have ever read.
So then — obviously — they use a crystal ball that Merlin gave them to hold a seance that conjures up the Justice Society from Earth-Two. Once all the heroes get together, they realize that their villains have switched places — I have no idea how they come to this conclusion — and they decide to swap universes, too.
So Doctor Fate magically sends the Justice League characters to Earth-Two, while — and this is a quote — “the Justice Society easily pierces the magical barrier that cannot hold them because it was not directed against their persons.” Okay.
Then the sixteen heroes split up into seven teams in two universes to fight the six villains, with the two Green Lanterns on a special mission to free the two Flashes. And that’s just halfway through the story! I won’t trouble you with the rest of it, but this goes on for a whole other issue, and it includes a taxidermy polar bear attack, a pterodactyl, jiu-jitsu, bucking broncos, a famous lighthouse, a vibration watch and giant green saxophones. And that only cost twelve cents; say what you like about 1960s DC Comics, you got your money’s worth.
And it just gets more complicated from there. The next summer, there’s another two-issue crossover story featuring five heroes from Earth-One, five heroes from Earth-Two and five super villains from Earth-Three who are all evil versions of the Earth-One heroes, including Ultraman instead of Superman, and Superwoman instead of Wonder Woman, so imagine how baffling that story gets.
It’s explained that Earth-One and Earth-Two are very similar, but Earth-Three is all backwards — Columbus was an American who discovered Europe, colonial England won its freedom from the United States, and actor Abe Lincoln shot President John Wilkes Booth. You get the idea.
So the Crime Syndicate of Earth-Three invades Earth-One, and fights with all the Earth-One heroes. The heroes win, but each fight ends with the villain shouting “Volthoom!” which transports all of them to Earth-Three, because Volthoom was the name of the Poonghie who gave Power Ring his mystic Power Ring. So then the Justice League of Earth-One has to call on the Justice Society of Earth-Two to jump in and fight the Crime Syndicate of Earth-Three. And so on.
It goes on and on. There were two different Earths called Earth-X — one that Jimmy Olsen visited in 1966, where Clark Kent wears a Joker mask and leads the evil LUTHAR League, and one from a Justice League story in 1973 where Uncle Sam, the Human Bomb, Miss America and Phantom Lady fight the Nazis in a world where Germany won World War II.
After a while, everything got so complicated and tangled-up that nobody could understand it, which doesn’t surprise me; I’m still trying to understand why the Wizard had to dress up as Dr. Alchemy in order to trick Superman into touching rubber.
So in 1985, they said the hell with it, let’s do a big crossover to clean all of this up. They called it Crisis on Infinite Earths and it went on for a whole year, including just about every character in the last 40+ years of DC Comics, which is way too many characters.
The story is about a wave of antimatter that’s destroying all of the excess universes that DC doesn’t want to deal with anymore, and the first one to disappear is Earth-Three, the one with Ultraman and Superwoman. This is a good step, but then the rest of the issue concerns a motley collection of 18 other characters, including Blue Beetle, Dawnstar, Firebrand, Firestorm, Geo-Force, Killer Frost, the Psycho-Pirate and Solovar, the leader of Gorilla City. You don’t see Superman and Batman until issue 2, and Wonder Woman doesn’t show up until issue 4.
Honestly, it’s a nightmare. They’re consolidating all their alternate universes so that the continuity is easier for newcomers to understand, but they do it by producing the least newcomer-friendly comic book they’ve ever made. Practically every line is a reference to something that happened in some random book fifteen years ago.
In the end, most of the other universes were destroyed, and Earth-One and Earth-Two merged together to create New Earth, which was basically just the same as if Keystone City and Central City were part of the same planet, with Jay Garrick being the Flash in the 1940s and Barry Allen being the Flash in the 1960s, which is what they should have done in the first place.
Now they have to write revamped origin stories for Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, but they don’t bother to do that for every character, obviously, and then dozens of writers write hundreds of stories all at once for years, which means it’s super easy to forget whether something that happened pre-Crisis was supposed to count or not.
Especially with Hawkman. Do you remember the thing about Carter Hall being the reincarnation of an Egyptian prince, and Katar Hol being an alien policeman from the planet Thanagar? Of course you don’t, that was thirty-six paragraphs ago, and we stopped in the middle to go to Casino Town, U.S.A.
And that’s what happened to Hawkman, after Crisis on Infinite Earths. The alien policeman version was on Earth-One, and the Egyptian reincarnation version was on Earth-Two, and now they were both part of the merged history of New Earth, and which one are people supposed to use?
I’m probably going to get something wrong at this point, because it’s an impenetrable little knot of comics history that requires a protractor, a microscope and an entire Starbucks worth of coffee to get your head around. But here goes.
When Crisis on Infinite Earths concluded in 1986 with Earth-One and Earth-Two merged into New Earth, both versions of Hawkman were still around — Carter Hall and Katar Hol. Carter Hall and the Justice Society went and fought Norse gods in an endless Ragnarok for some reason, and Katar Hol hung around on New Earth and had adventures.
Then in 1989, they rebooted the Katar Hol version in a comic called Hawkworld, which brought the Thanagarian to Earth for his first visit. So the comics with Katar Hol from 1986 to 1989 were out of continuity, which is a problem for some people.
So DC’s response in 1990 was that both the Earth-One and Earth-Two Hawkmen were archeologist Carter Hall, and the only real Katar Hol is the one who just showed up, so any Hawkman stories that took place before the Crisis and were still supposed to matter were all the Egyptian Hawkman and not the alien Hawkman, even though that doesn’t make sense, because we say so.
But there’s a concept stuck in there which is the problem — that some of the stories published before Crisis on Infinite Earths were still in continuity, and some of them weren’t, and you were supposed to be able to keep track of which was which, even if the writers disagreed and contradicted each other. Crisis on Infinite Earths gave them the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start all over again, which is what they did for Superman — but for other characters, they still had a random selection from the past.
The Legion of Super-Heroes had a long history with both Superboy and Supergirl, but post-Crisis, neither Superboy or Supergirl existed — and the Legion of Super-Heroes still did. So first they said that the Superboy that the Legion knew was from a pocket universe, and then they retconned it again to say that it wasn’t Superboy after all, it was Mon-El, who’s a different character, and then back and forth a couple more times.
The whole point of Crisis on Infinite Earths was to help newcomers understand what was going on in the comics, but the new continuity snarls that Crisis introduced made it even harder to figure out. Even the fanboy experts didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t.
So then there was a whole thing in 2005 and 2006 called Infinite Crisis, involving Superboy-Prime. He was a version of Superboy from Earth-Prime that popped up in the middle of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and ended up going with Earth-Two Superman, Earth-Two Lois Lane and the Lex Luthor Jr of Earth-Three to a paradise dimension that he quickly got sick of.
So Superboy-Prime went mad and started pounding on the walls of reality, and those vibrations — it’s always vibrations, with these people — are the explanation for why Hawkman has contradictory origin stories. It’s just that simple.
That led to a crossover continuity clean-up storyline called Infinite Crisis in 2005, and then 52 and One Year Later in 2006, and then Final Crisis in 2008, and then Flashpoint in 2011, at which point the entire comics line rebooted again into The New 52, and then rebooted again with Convergence in 2015 and Rebirth in 2016, each one trying to define and redefine what exactly was in continuity and what wasn’t.
Each of these was supposed to be the very last reboot ever, and a clean slate and a new start, and for some reason they never make it past five years without deciding no, wait, the old way was better. Because once you make the decision to blow up your narrative universe in order to straighten out fucking Hawkman, you have lost the ability to tell comprehensible stories to anyone.
Anyway, the point is that creating and destroying parallel timelines is not the answer for everything. At a certain point, you just say, Barnabas Collins is in love with an idiot named Roxanne, and we’re just going to have to make the best of it.
Tomorrow: When I Am Not With You.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Barnabas tells Hamilton, “Of course he’s opposed to an autopsy! It would mean that — and prove that the woman who died is Angelique!”
When Stokes tells Roxanne that Claude is dead, something in the studio falls over.
The clock in the Collinwood foyer says 10:10 when Barnabas is talking with Hamilton on the phone, but the clock behind Hamilton says 6:00.
Barnabas tells Roxanne, “You must tell them… you must prove to them!”
In the dream, Barnabas tells Roxanne, “Here, in this room, we will go back to my own time. I will see… you will see where I am, where I belong.”
Behind the Scenes:
This is Colin Hamilton’s last episode as Inspector Hamilton. He returns for one episode as a doctor, in episode 1219 — but that’s the missing episode, so nobody’s seen that performance since 1971. We’re probably not missing much, he’s terrible.
After Dark Shadows, Hamilton had small parts in various TV shows, including All in the Family, Wonder Woman, CHiPs, The Greatest American Hero, The Powers of Matthew Star, Misfits of Science, Knots Landing, The Golden Girls and Matlock. He also played a Maitre D’ in Flashdance. On Broadway, he was an understudy on the 1974 Tom Stoppard play Jumpers, and the 1975 revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.
Tomorrow: When I Am Not With You.
— Danny Horn