Over the weekend, ComicBook.com will take a look at the last three weeks of DC Comics's zero issues, stories told in the five years missing between the first issues of Action Comics and Justice League and those of the rest of the New 52's publishing line.
And along the way, we've seen a handful of retcons, blunders and all the other sorts of things that you get when you try to insert a new story into the timeline of the old ones.
These mistakes are almost a stock-in-trade at the Big Two, since they've got decades of history that they have to incorporate into their books and fans who know all of it and want their favorite story to count, regardless of what that does to the timeline. Going back to the early days of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, Marvel realized that an interconnected universe where all of the characters coexist could take their books to the next level and make everything a "must-read" for fans. Years later, DC and Marvel fall back on "events" and the interconnected universe because its what makes them special and exciting. Does anyone actually believe a tenth Batman title will magically make the other nine as good as The Walking Dead? Not objectively, no, but it creates an overall experience that smaller publishers cannot afford to replicate.
How much do these broken timelines really matter, anyway? To the publisher, to the fans...and to new readers? It's the kind of thing that DC has been trying to fix for over twenty years, with varying degrees of success.
At one point, it was decided that their multiverse, each world having a host of similar-but-different characters and its own history, was impenetrable for new readers and needed to be cleaned up. Crisis on Infinite Earths was intended to be the story that would "fix" all of that, making comics more new reader-friendly.
And it did--for a while. But a combination of the consternation of longtime fans whose favorite stories had been retconned out of existence and an industry-wide move to the direct market (where the publishers essentially preach to the converted and never really grow the audience) led to many of the changes being reversed. Decisions that had been made to simplify the publishing line ultimately ended up making it more complicated, as old stories were "reinstated" and suddenly you had pre- and post-Crisis versions of characters and events.
Zero Hour came along later, and one of the things that story did was to tie up some of the dangling threads from Crisis and try to clean up some of the collateral damage done to the timeline as a result of some of the kinds of glitches we're seeing now following the Flashpoint relaunch. That worked for a while, too, although admittedly an even shorter time.
The timeline created at the end of Zero Hour gave fans a map to the altered DC Universe, but stories that were written into continuity retroactively also seemed to conflict with that history pretty quickly and some of the less popular changes were undone more or less as soon as the short-lived stories featuring those changes played out. The timeline, which seemed like an ingenious idea, made it even more obvious when things didn't fit and arguably became a liability.
There have been a lot of changes since then, although the most notable of the stories have been made in Infinite Crisis and 52, since they were actually designed for that purpose (as opposed to just having the incidental effect of mucking with history, like The Kingdom or Identity Crisis.
DC has always had trouble, because they've half-assed all of these reboots. They don't care enough to actually fix the problems raised, just enough to "address" them by creating another event that will put a band-aid on the sucking chest wound. And while The New 52 was meant to be a clean slate, they half-assed that, too: One year in, it's clear that, from a continuity standpoint, leaving Batman and Green Lantern's histories "intact"--which they did essentially because the books were good and DC was scared of tinkering with a winning formula--was a hornet's nest just waiting to be kicked.
In the year since the relaunch, DC has pulled a Pele on that hornet's nest, kicking it dozens of times and occasionally getting stung--most notably when Scott Lobdell announced that Tim Drake had never been Robin, to the fury of his fans, but there have been other, similar issues. Stories that ostensibly "still count" like Blackest Night heavily feature characters who no longer exist, or reference events that never happened, or rely on deaths that haven't had any time to happen. Grant Morrison's Batman stories work the same way, since he appears to have been told to go ahead and finish what he started without worrying particularly about whether his timeline makes a lick of sense within the New 52.
As much as DC seems to worship at the altar of continuity, they seem to muck it up quite a bit--and there's an attitude when they're approached about it that these things simply aren't that important. When you make conflicting references in Teen Titans or Red Hood and the Outlaws or even Batman & Robin, it seems that DC's attitude is, "We're evolving as we go here. Cut us some slack." And that's understandable, but at this point we've heard it so many times that it doesn't seem like evolution; it seems like some things simply weren't thought out before Flashpoint hit the Big Cosmic Reset Button. The idea that DC couldn't have foreseen a change until they needed to make it and therefore shouldn't be put on the spot for that change is starting to feel a bit like "It's magic--you don't have to explain it."
Because here's the thing: DC and Marvel believe (and rightly so) that sometimes continuity can get in the way of good storytelling, and that when that happens, continuity should come second. There are a number of longtime readers for whom continuity is second nature, but new readers (or readers new to a title or character) don't have the same comprehensive understanding, and will likely not notice the changes. Which is why, frankly, alterations made at the start of the relaunch shouldn't have been as maligned as they were. When you're kicking off a new timeline and there's no history in place, after all, why not make some tweaks in the name of (what you think is) better story?
As the universe progresses, though, it starts to feel like they just don't care--and there's a difference between caring and caring too much, because continuity isn't just something for obsessed, know-it-all fans. These snafus can be barriers to understanding and enjoyment for casual readers.
Longtime readers understand the soap operatic nature of comics and generally accept story developments that are clumsily shoehorned in, as long as the end result is something they like (see: Green Lantern: Rebirth), but readers who have less invested in these characters may not be so forgiving. Those mythical new readers who pick up a book for the first time on their iPhone and have been reading since September of last year may see a Batman timeline where he puts on the costume for the first time five years ago, but has a ten-year-old bastard child conceived while he had the cape and cowl already, and think that's sloppy storytelling. Pile on four or five of those kinds of things and it can really start to give the impression that the inmates are running the asylum.