In the previous century there developed a fairly stable pattern to the DCU. It wasn’t pre-planned but occurred as a natural outgrowth to the rhythms of society. Roughly every 15 years, as generation of childhood readers “aged out” of comics’ readership, the DCU would be rebooted.
It wasn’t ever put that way, and there were always other ostensible reasons for the change. The Silver Age started “when it was time to bring superheroes back” after their popularity fell during the post-War/Wertham years. The Bronze Age started when “a more serious world needed less frivolous superheroes, ones more quote unquote relevant”. The Iron Age started when “the DCU became too complicated for new readers”. The subsequent Age (more on that later) started when “people wanted a brighter, larger universe”.
Perhaps. But more generally, DC comics move from one “Age” to another when:
- the initial readership for the current Age has suffered enough attrition to make a change a worthwhile or necessary risk; and/or
- the zeitgeist has changed sufficiently that it demands a change in tone that’s difficult to accomplish in the current age.
In the Golden Age, heroes and villains shot and maimed and killed in Dick Tracy world of bright colored and wide-eyed corpses. Corpses EVERYWHERE, stinking up the streets like ginko fruit in the District of Columbia. The Depression/War years were not for the squeamish, either in the real life or the comics.
|Remember, kids; Captain Marvel fought zombies before your parents were born.|
In the Silver Age, people had had enough of all that unpleasantness, and DC’s heroes and villains obligingly put down their guns and engaged in elaborate games of wits, one-up-manship, and thematic tomfoolery with an expanded cast of pets, pals, and gadgetry.
|Green Arrow and Speedy collect their wits? Jeez, how long IS this story?!|
In the Bronze Age, faced with social unrest and societal self-doubt, readers found that all that ridiculous, so heroes and villains became relevant, disagreeable, and fallible. Green Arrow’s heyday, for obvious reasons.
|All sympathy, Bronze Age Batman lets you stay unconscious on the first date.|
As a result, readers headed toward the Iron Age with a bunch of crabby, crappy heroes (I’m looking at you, Stupid Bronze Age Batman) who lived in a bizarre Silver Age wonderland of weirdness, and the tension between the two had grown laughable. The time had come to clear the board completely, and the Iron Age eliminated all the previous piled up continuity for a total restart. Except for Batman, really. Because he’s Batman.
But since then, readers have been hit with repeated reboots of the DCU. In DC’s first 47 years, it had, essentially two reboots; in the last 30 years it’s had at least five (depending on how you count them).
Is time –and our comic book media cycle--speeding up? Are reboots coming more frequently because readership is smaller and more volatile? Are attention spans shorter? Has DC simply become addicted to reboots because, like a rat pushing a lever, they get the delicious cheese of a sales bump each time they do it? Are they just screwing up reboots because they've lost the ancient art of doing so correctly and comprehensively?
Well… all of those are true to at least some degree, no question. And it does look bad if you look at it this way, assuming that each reboot heralds a new age:
But I currently look at it a different way. One that is enabled by no longer equating a ‘reboot’ with a change of Age. The shift from the Silver to the Bronze Age was dramatic; very dramatic. But, technically, there was no ‘reboot’ (as they are now called) between the two. In fact, though this will defy the expectations of many, I would make the case that, despite the huge change between the Golden and Silver Ages, there was no reboot between them either. Yes, we got a new Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman; but they had all been discontinued for some time. The characters that were still in print (Batman, Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow) pretty much continued their adventures without much of a hiccough. Were there a lot more gorillas and aliens on their dance cards? Of course. But there was no clear break or repudiation with the past.
If you think of it that way then the only changes of Age that really coincide with a reboot is pre/post-Crisis (from multiverse to universe) and pre/post-Infinite Crisis (from universe to multiverse). The other ‘reboots’ are just continuity jiggering. And a lot of that is of the kind that used to be done without renumbering and fanfare (a new costume, a new status quo, a new city or supporting cast, or casually just forgetting stories that don’t fit any more). This used to be done all the time (either out of necessity or apathy) and during the Hypertime period DC came out and said as much. The DCU, they posited, was a Heraclitean river; you can’t step into the same version of it twice.
I submit that the ‘real’ history of the DCU looks like this:
We are now approaching the second furniture-shuffling-style 'reboot' of what I now call the Silicon Age (characterized by the return of the multiverse and the rise of digital comics and superhero cinema) ... pretty much right on schedule. I predict it will last for another 7 years, when the next real change of Age will come and comics will start to be written by and for people who don't remember a time before the internet.