Timeline: DC superheroes

I’ve been playing lately with the idea that, since I’m in a new city and state, I might try running a variant on one of my former campaigns: DC Realtime. The original assumption was that all DC superheroes began their careers in the years when they were first published, and aged year for year from then on. In this case I’d want to make an added assumption: that the timeline doesn’t include any of the characters DC took over from Charlton, Fawcett, MJL/Archie Adventure, Quality, or any other publishers. (By and large I don’t like those characters as much, and they make for an overcomplicated continuity.)

So, for example, Superman started his career in 1938, and by now he has some distinguished gray at the temples and has changed his focus from adventuring to research; Batman started his in 1939, and is long dead; Wonder Woman started hers in 1941 and hasn’t aged a day.

The first tricky part is that a lot of characters have gone on having published adventures far longer than realistic aging can allow. Consider Green Arrow and Speedy, who started out in 1941: when he joined the Justice League in 1961, Green Arrow must have been well into his forties and not far from retirement, and when Speedy joined the Teen Titans in 1969 he would have been around 40 (a similar problem arises for Robin, who would have been in his thirties at their first adventure in 1964). It makes better sense to say that Speedy had taken up the role of Green Arrow by 1961, when he still had a decade ahead of him. Kid Flash, Aqualad, and Wonder Girl could all actually be teenagers in 1964, but they would have been long past that in 1973, when the series was first cancelled.

Wonder Girl has a really wonky history, by the way: The original stories that had her teaming up with Wonder Woman were supposedly fictional adventurers created by splicing together home movies of Princess Diana at different ages, and treating her as a different person and a sidekick was the result of a writer’s confusion; making sense of it has caused endless continuity snarls. Probably the least awkward fix is to suppose that Wonder Woman finally married Steve Trevor in the early 1950s and had a daughter shortly after. This parallels something my co-GM and I did the first time around: treating Superboy (first published 1944) as Clark Kent’s illegitimate son by a girl who was sent away to have the baby, for the sake of avoiding scandal. I’m thinking of calling him Lancelot Strong this time. Then there are Supergirl and Power Girl; Supergirl was in her teens in 1959 and is probably best explained as Superman’s cousin, arrived on Earth late, but Power Girl is enough younger that she might be Clark and Lois Kent’s daughter (and “Superboy”'s half-sister). I’m entertaining the idea that Power Girl took up her career after her aunt Kara (actually her cousin once removed) departed to be with Brainiac 5 in the thirtieth century . . .

The other chronological problem I’ve identified so far is Infinity Inc., purportedly the children of the Justice Society—but the Justice Society was founded in 1941, presumably when its members were in their twenties, and Infinity Inc. started in 1983, purportedly when its members were in their teens; that has all of the Justice Society becoming parents remarkably late. I haven’t really figured out a workaround for that.

The other thing I’m looking at is staying closer to the original origins and power sets. So, for example, Superman has his powers because all Kryptonians had similar powers on Krypton; and those powers are at the level of lifting cars, outrunning an express train, and “nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin,” without later additions such as X-ray vision, heat vision (originally defined as an application of X-ray vision), super-breath, or flight. Aquaman originally was raised in the sunken ruins of Atlantis by a scientist father who had worked out methods for conditioning him to survive underwater; he doesn’t have to meet Atlanteans until he encounters Aqualad around 1960.

I haven’t really figured out what happens to the timeline after the early 1980s. DC has been reconfiguring the entire universe/multiverse over and over since then, and I want to avoid that. Three different Legions of Superheroes, for example, are two too many.

(This might be how Thomas Aquinas felt turning the scriptures into a logically coherent theology. . . .)

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Context: not a superhero fan, not a DC reader, most of these names are just names to me.

Does it help to say that there’s been more than one “Superman” at different times, with older ones retiring and newer ones stepping up to be the active heroic Superman? (Etc. for other heroes.)

I am rather perplexed that that did not kill all interest in the comics. If the only person who stays dead is Uncle Ben, why care who lives or dies? (Though that’s specifically a Marvel issue rather than DC.)

But then, I always preferred the Phantom to superheroes, so I’m not in your target audience.

Yes and no.

Yes: There was a Flash who started his career in 1940, and another who started his career in 1956, and a Kid Flash who started in 1960 and later started to call himself “Flash” after the second Flash died in 1984. There was a Green Lantern who started in 1940, and another one who started in 1959; and the second one was an interstellar policeman sponsored by the Guardians of the Universe, as were his successors Guy Gardner, John Stewart, Kyle Rainer, and I think others. (Though DC has all of them actively currently, I believe.)

No: There has been a continuous publication of adventures of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman since their first appearances. At one time it was asserted that the earlier adventures took place in “Earth-Two” and the later ones in “Earth-One,” but the dividing lines were placed more or less arbitrarily. And then DC did away with multiple timelines (though they later brought them back), and said that Batman had begun his career only fairly recently and the 1940s Batman was no longer canonical.

It’s really kind of a mess.

There’s a reason I no longer read mainstream superhero comics, whether DC or Marvel.

Spider-Man: Life Story is a recent series that did this premise with Spider-Man. It was 6 issues, with each issue covering a decade and one of the major Spider-Man/Marvel stories of that decade and how it might be different without Marvel’s sliding timescale.

Interesting. So they get up to Peter Parker signing up for Medicare?

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Strangely, that doesn’t come up :thinking:

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I think I’m missing something here (I am not at all a superheroes fan). The characters and stories seem to be mythological, rather than realistic. Trying to fit a realistic timeline to them is going to be like trying to fit the tales about Thor from the Poetic Edda to locations on a map of Scandinavia: you’re going to need some external mechanism or conceit to make it work.

For example, you could regard superheroes as eidolons that persist over decades, but are instantiated as different people at different times.

It seems to me that superheroes as such are not so much mythic as romantic, to put it in Northrop Frye’s terms: That is, they are not wholly above nature and natural law, but have some measure of exemption from natural law, like Achilles, Lancelot, or Aragorn. But at the same time, the archetypal superhero has a secret identity that is mimetic, and most often low mimetic, and as such is entangled in time and history. And even in their heroic identities they are tied to specific historical events: Captain America and Wonder Woman to World War II, the Fantastic Four and Green Lantern (the Hal Jordan version) to the 1950s, Spider-man and the Teen Titans to the 1960s (what other era could have given us Hawk and Dove?), Ms. Marvel (now Captain Marvel) to the 1970s . . .

And for the most part, they are supposed to be mortal, and to have generations; for example, the Teen Titans were the sidekicks of the Justice League, and Infinity Inc. were the children of the Justice Society.

But even though, theoretically, Green Lantern (Alan Scott) began his career in 1940, when he was a young engineer (probably in his mid-twenties), and even though, theoretically, Jade began her career in 1983, when she was in her late teens, we are also supposed to believe that Jade is Green Lantern’s daughter by one of the original Flash’s villains, the Thorn. So we have, say, a fifty-year-old Alan Scott begetting twins on a woman not much younger no earlier than 1963, and similarly for all the other Justice Society members whose children formed Infinity Inc. And that just strains at the mimetic aspect.

You can regard this as a private amusement if you like. But I do want to point out that it has one real payoff in terms of gaming: It lets me run a campaign set in 2021 and NOT have the player characters overshadowed either by the continuing active presence of Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, or by some vast catastrophe that destroyed them all. They can simply be a new generation of superheroes stepping up to the challenge of their own time. And if they want to play the old eidolons in new bodies, they can, but they don’t have to.

You can toss the JSA in an alternate dimension for a period or have their “last days of the JSA” Per Degaton adventure skip them through time shortly after they retire from the HUAC hearings, say 1951 to 1963 and save 12 years there and still be very solidly in the flow of a myth there.

Go off to war, come home to clean house, get sidetracked on the way back, start families after that.

I don’t really want to have alternate dimensions; that leads to things like the Earth-One/Earth-Two/Earth-Three mess.

The skipping through time is a possibility, but I’m not sure I like it. For one thing, it would mean that Jay Garrick, Alan Scott, Carter Hall, Shiera Sanders, Al Pratt, and the rest of them would all have been missing for a long time; they would probably be legally dead, and they wouldn’t have secret identities after showing up again. For another, they would be twelve years out of date on technology, current events, and culture. For another, would their spouses, friends, and relatives have gone with them? It would be awkward for Alan Scott to still be in his mid-thirties while Molly Mayne had reached her early forties, for example.

I’d figure on re-jiggering the relationships a fair bit.

What with Jade and Todd being raised without Alan knowing about them and the personality issues of Molly, having her meet Alan for the first time younger than him after the war and the relationship begin in fact after he gets back with them closer in age could work.

Jay and Joan having an age gap and Joan never having given up on Jay would fit their dynamic pretty well. Could work for Wes and Dian also.

Joan and Dian never giving up on them and then having Johnny Quick or Mister Terrific, or one of the less core members not be displaced could keep them as legal entities as an eccentric act.

Loss of secret identities because of return to extended families and friends who now realize why they were missing could lead to the actual retirement.

I’m not sure Pratt, McNider, Grant, or the others had a lot of deep family connections in the source. Being weirdo loners kind of fits the mask and two fist bit pretty well.

(Disclaimer, I re-read Sandman Mystery Theatre, Starman, The Spectre, and JSA during covid. I just started Frye this week.)

I suppose another option would be to flip things up and make Infinity Inc the jet age 1960’s team and the JLA the 1980’s mid-cold war team. You’d wind up with Hal in a different team and off from series print dates but maybe closer to naturalistic character dates.)

I’ve just read issue #9 of SMT. It’s one of the titles C and I kept when we had to thin out our collection ruthlessly so we could move to a one-bedroom apartment.

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From looking at online sources, I’ve ascertained that Batman has been associated with two Batwomen, five Robins (not counting Carrie Kelly from The Dark Knight, who is a future rather than a present/past Robin), four Batgirls (one of whom was also a Robin), Ace the Bat-hound, Oracle (who was formerly a Batgirl), Bluebird, Gotham, Gotham Girl, and the international team of Batman Incorporated. I’m going to fit a lot of them into the chronology, but not quite all, I think.

The published continuity has Dick Grayson teaming up with Batman at 10 and went out on his own at 22; Jason Todd started at 12 and was murdered two years later; Tim Drake started at 13 and lasted at least four years; and Damian Wayne showed up at 10 and has only aged a year or so since then (enough so he could mock Jon Kent for not being a “teen”, so maybe as much as three years). That’s at least twenty years. But Batman started fighting crime in his mid-twenties and does not seem to be in his mid-forties; more likely in his thirties. This is the kind of thing that inspired the idea of “DC Realtime” in the first place.

Having started fighting crime in 1939, Batman would hardly be in shape to do so in the 1980s, so one of my tweaks was to have Jason Todd team up with Barbara Gordon—and then be shot dead at the same time that she was paralyzed. . . .

Just to note, this one didn’t sell to my prospective players, so the discussion above is academic.