When talking about comic books, we often focus on the main characters. But as important in its own way is the world that is built around them.
In the early Golden Age, superhero comics were often like stripped-down bare-stage plays. Who cared what Clark Kent's boss's name was? He's just a mechanism for setting Superman into action. You can read the entire Starman Archive and not know what city Starman lives in, because it's never mentioned. Anything other than the main character was a potential distraction and treated as such. Try and imagine reading a superhero comic book today in which essential supporting players and the host city aren't even named; it just wouldn't happen and if it did, you'd be darned puzzled by such a "strange" artistic choice.
This changed as the Golden Age blossomed. As characters become stronger and more popular, they no longer need a empty stage in order to stand out. Writers started fleshing out the supporting casts, and natural impulse led them to develop (consciously or not) the Dynastic Centerpiece model we like to talk about here. To some degree, this works and is good. But things can be carried too far ... .
Creators started to use the stage scenery as a mechanism to magnify the central characters, and supporting casts, conditions, and cities grew like weeds. From the spare stage of Greek tragedy we got in the early Golden Age, the height of the Silver Age gave us an overwrought opera production, whose baroque stages dripped with Supercats, Wonder Tots, and Bat-Mites.
Tales of the Bat-Signal!
The Many Loves of Lang Lang!
Wonder Tot Meets Nubia!
Okay, okay; Wonder Tot never met Nubia. But that's only because no one thought of it.
The whole thing went a bit over the top, enough that even the long-standing characters with powerful iconic voices had trouble being heard of the loudness of their scenery.
Part of moving from the Silver Age to the Bronze Age was backing away from character-specific scenery in favor of broader contextual backgrounds for the entire DC "universe". Less time was spent detailing "The Adventures of Commissioner Gordon's Pipe!" and more on exploring the Justice League and the Justice Society, its counterpart on "Earth-2" (a mechanism for placing current "continuity" in the larger context of old comics stories).
When Marvel came crashing onto the scene in the Silver Age, it taught DC (or reminded it of) the value of giving characters individual personalities and of placing them all into the same overall context, a "universe" where any character might potentially interact with another. DC had explored these possibilities already, but it had a post-hoc flavor to it. Yes, big characters might appear together frequently, but some major scientific or sociological discovery in one title (say, a secret city of superscientific gorillas or an attack by an alien armada) would be virtually ignored in every other. Marvel helped DC understand that readers were interested not just in the characters but in the entire world that contained them.
Mythbuilding creators get this. Comic books, Star Wars, Buffy, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, professional wrestling, soap operas: their value lies not primarily in the intrinsic worth of their individual episodes (Lord knows!) but in providing an epic/mythic universe in which those episodes take place and contribute richness and meaning. That what many readers are looking for: not mere stories (which one can watch in Lifetime movies or read in SF anthologies) but myths.Meanwhile, back in the Bronze Age, DC's attempts at building little worlds around each character and building one world around all of it had been started at different times and were hard to reconcile. When it all seemed to have past the point of diminishing returns, DC decided it would be easier to start fresh, and reboot itself with Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Many people crave not merely entertainment, but context, framing devices to help us understand and connect with the world around us, particularly when that world is complicated. They will create them, whether it's through ancient aetiological myths, Bible stories, medieval epics & ballads, or Batman: The Animated Series. People may not be able to take the whole world in with their minds, but it becomes easier to know what to do when you can simply ask yourself, "What would Jesus/Superman/Brian Boitano do?"
I think that is in fact what many people condemn as "geekiness": not reading such stories per se but using them as a framework for understanding the world. Well, you know what: screw them. They're mostly people who have given up on understanding the world, who have no need for a moral or conceptual framework because they don't make moral decisions or choose their ideas; they let others do that for them. Much easier to float through life on the wave of humanity, pausing occasionally to laugh at guys speaking Klingon or debating Supergirl's hemline. Which is too high, by the way.
The putative housecleaning of Crisis on Infinite Earths cleared the stage for many characters, particularly ones like the Big Three. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman were stripped of as much baggage as possible and put on to bare stages to begin their stories anew in what I might as well call the post-Crisis "Iron Age". Over the last 20 years, a slow realization seemed to develop that too much had been lost; the bathwater may have been dirty, but darned if some of its babies weren't cute.
As broader, brighter elements -- none more stunning than the JSA, which had been shunted off as an embarrassing relic at the beginning of the Iron Age -- began to return, everyone seemed to realize we were in a new world, one which DC formalized through the exercise of Infinite Crisis, and which I'm currently calling the Platinum Age, because it shines like silver but ain't as cheap.
The goal in the Platinum Age (at least, I hope) seems to be to merge the best elements of the previous ages, such as
- the deadly seriousness of the Golden Age ("Oh, look, Robin; another pile of dead bodies."),
- the personalization and whimsy of the Silver Age (*Chuckle* "Brainy suggests we have Protty disguise himself as a young Krypto so that Superboy will never realize that Jimmy Olsen was once his baby-sitter on Krypton, which might upset the time-stream!"),
- and the cosmos-spanning, satellite-filling crossover context of the Bronze Age ("I couldn't make the League's adventure against Star-Breaker because I was visiting my mother on Earth-2!" *Editor's note: See "The Canary Cries At Midnight!", in Supergirl 123).
The ratio and nature of that mix you prefer pretty much defines who you are in the universe of DC fans. In the Platinum Age, some readers are shocked to see decapitations and rapes, because they thought we were returning to the innocent Silver Age. Others are displeased by the new existence of dogs in capes. Some resent "being forced to buy other comics" to fully understand the broader context of the comics they regularly read; others rejoice in projects like 52, Brave & Bold, and Justice League Unlimited, books where the entire DC Universe itself is the star. The most I can say to people who are utterly astonished that an entire universe wasn't reconfigured exactly to their liking is "relax, find the parts you like and enjoy them, and don't stress about the rest."
This is rather a long way round the barn to this point: one of the contextualizing things that I most enjoy is seeing companies and organizations mentioned in various titles. It's a nice low-key way of connecting everything that doesn't require lots of cross-reading to get the feeling all your favorite characters are living in the same world. DC knows this: Sundoller, Lexcorp, Stagg Industries, the Sunderland Corporation, Big Belly, Smilin' Bess, Ferris Aircraft, Soder Cola versus Zesti, STAR Labs; these are the background signs that help us know we're in the DCU, regardless of which hero is thrashing which villain in foreground.
Some of these are recent, but I'd love for DC to take advantage of their wealth of history to "revive" even more companies. DC's Golden and Silver Age stories are a wonderland of chewing gum companies, piano factories, chemical plants, radio stations, newspapers, and vague family-owned conglomerates (I mean, what the heck did Ollie Queen make his money in?). I would love for there to be a place or person that collects this all, where every time I could check to see whether Consolidated Corn has every been mentioned before and, if not, to add it to the list. I'm sure that some writers would take advantage of it and drop by whenever they need to insert a tuna processing firm into their current storyline.
Anyone willing to bell this cat?