The DC Universe remains a strange setting and object. A tattered together tapestry that feels more like an archipelago than a unified land mass like the Marvel Universe. It’s a strange beast. It’s an assembly from the various acquisitions and power grabs that united a disparate number of publishers under one banner. The DCU is a place of paper and ink that defies and slips out of any attempts to create a ‘clean’ and contradiction-free tapestry. It’s a setting where ‘continuity’ and ‘canon’ feel like loaded and dangerous words, as the crisis-afflicted setting resists any certainty those imply. It feels like a taped-together mess that barely holds, and yet when it does, it can be magnificent. Astonishing tales can be woven from its tendrils of impossible absurdity. It’s a reality operating on vibrations, wherein Superman sings to save existence.
There’s something broken and yet beautiful about it.
It’s a truth that seems to extend to its cinematic and television worlds as well, which lack the ‘cohesion’ of a Marvel Studios-style clean universe, and feel more like chaotic whirlwinds of clashing worlds and visions that can change on a dime. It’s what we’re seeing once more as Warner Bros, DC’s parent company, has been acquired by Discovery.
As I sat down to read The Hollywood Reporter’s coverage on the whole aftermath of the Discovery acquisition, with CEO David Zaslav having new plans that scuttled the old ones, something struck me.
Reading about these now-uncertain plans of the future, I had a clear thought that focused in on the first line of the last paragraph:
Really? Crisis On Infinite Earths? That’s what they were gearing up for? They had nothing else? No other story to adapt or consider?
It was a thought that seemed to echo even stronger in light of the reveal that the Dark Crisis event title from DC had been ‘hiding’ its actual ‘real’ title: Dark Crisis On Infinite Earths. Once again, at that point, I recall thinking:
Really? Why are we so obsessed with going back to that one story? Don’t we have literally anything else? Come on now!
Both cases were merely an expression of a larger frustration- the idea of a Big DC Story being impossibly chained to the husk of an 80’s Crisis comic. But that also got me thinking about a wider question the whole thing seemed to suggest. The very idea of a Big DC Story itself. What is that? How does such a thing manifest? Particularly now. How do we view and think about Big DC Stories? Those universe-spanning tales that feel like a grand statement, which tackle the totality of this absurd archipelago. They come in many shapes, many forms and formats, and they’re a prospect worth considering. How do various creators seem to try and wrangle together this impossible setting and its inhabitants to say something? What do those attempts tend to look like? Are there patterns to them, across the past? And how do they make up the modern identity and portrait of contemporary DC Comics? That’s what I’d like to consider here, in taking a look at many popular attempts at Big Stories of the DC Universe.
It won’t just be Events we talk about, because (and this is key) while all events are Big Stories, not all Big Stories are Events, which is worth keeping in mind.
In surveying the landscape, in performing accounting of the past, nine notable modes emerge. These nine modes are the primary paths which many seem to be drawn to in our modern era. These are the popular modes in which we seem to have conceptualized our ideas of The Big DC Story.
1. The Crisis Mode
The apocalypse story. It’s a tale of reality-death. It’s the end of the world as the stakes. It’s a tale of grand, sweeping cosmic repercussions. It is the powerful echo of the phrase ‘Worlds will live. Worlds will die. And nothing will ever be the same.’
It is the most popular and recognizable vision of a Big DC Story. In fact, probably the first thing many even think of when the words ‘Big Story’ or ‘Event’ come up in comics contexts, for few exist with the kind of repercussions the original Crisis On Infinite Earths had. Crisis is, of course, not something Marv Wolfman and George Perez invented. There’s a long tradition of DC Crisis stories prior to that, many of them penned by the legendary Gardner Fox, known as The Father Of The Crossover. But while they could be big and multiversal, no Crisis before or after had quite the same impact or visual power. Wolfman had grown up a diehard Marvel kid, alongside best mate Len Wein, and would go up to the home of Jack Kirby and watch him draw, eating snacks. He worked on magazines that expressed his diehard Marvel cred, and he lived and breathed the Marvel Universe, particularly as drawn by Jack Kirby. And so he would pen a comic called Crisis, an event comic designed to re-configure the DC Universe in order to make it more akin to a ‘cleaner’ and more ‘cohesive’ universe like Marvel, in a story that was effectively a cover song of the iconic Galactus Saga from the pages of Fantastic Four. And with the brilliance of artistic pioneer George Perez as his collaborator to pull it off, Crisis would create what would become the visual language of Event Storytelling in superhero comics.
It worked, and from there, whatever ‘Crisis’ had been prior, which was almost akin to a Thanksgiving ritual of neat ‘team-ups,’ was supplanted by the power and potency of the new Perezian epic. Ever since, people have been chasing that high, and trying to recreate it.
So what is a Crisis as we understand it now? It usually involves a mysterious celestial or cosmic threat that is out to devour the world or devastate it beyond recognition, and must be stopped at all costs. It’s the Do Or Die story, the ‘end of days’ tale of superhero worlds. And they’re tales that tend to conclude with the salvation of existence, putting off the end of days until next time. Every event or ‘big story’ staple can usually be found in a Crisis, given how much it informed and influenced our modern ideas of what a big superhero comics story is or ought to be doing. Meaning whether it be grand Character Deaths or ‘House Cleaning’ of the shared universe and its continuity, it’s all demonstrated here.
There’s no shortage of examples when it comes to Big DC Stories that operate in the Crisis Mode and tradition:
- Cosmic Odyssey
- Zero Hour: A Crisis In Time
- Final Night
- Our Worlds At War
- Infinite Crisis
- Final Crisis
- The Multiversity
- Dark Nights: Metal
- Justice League: No Justice
- Dark Nights: Death Metal
- Infinite Frontier
- Dark Crisis On Infinite Earths
2. The Watchmen Mode
The mystery drama. Something’s just happened, and no one seems to truly understand it. People are on the case and trying to piece things together. There’s a sense of paranoia and uncertainty, and the thrust of the story is less ‘outward’ as in apocalyptic crisis tales. Instead all the scale and spectacle is used to look ‘inward,’ the pieces, the players, how they fit, how they don’t fit, and the sparks that fly from that. If the big apocalyptic spectacle arrives, it’s usually right at the end to help make a point about the actual people themselves. These are dramas less about an attack from the sky or the stars, and more so about the rot that’s been growing amidst everything in the world as it exists.
It’s the other popular alternative to a typical Crisis. It’s less ‘a bomb’s gone off’ and more so ‘we think there might a bomb, and it might be ticking,’ as we follow that ticking until the conclusion, and see how things go down. It’s a mode that lends itself very well to questioning the essential qualities of its setting and casting doubt upon previously held-assumptions or ideas. It’s why it’s the go-to mode for the big DC stories that wish to explore how and where the superhero figure fits in and relates to real history, politics, and major issues people face.
The impact of Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons/John Higgins’ Watchmen ensured this was a mode that would forever be etched into the annals of superhero comics history. It was the dragon that many would chase, the lighting in the bottle many would try to recapture, the thing so many wanted to respond to, including DC themselves.
When done right and well, it can be the most rewarding, thrilling, rich and definitive statement on the setting or at least an era of it. It can speak to realities and use the genre fiction of the superhero as a vehicle to address real concerns and issues. When done poorly, it is probably the most disastrous. It’s a real sink-or-swim mode.
Examples of this mode can be seen in the following:
- The Golden Age
- The New Frontier
- Identity Crisis
- Heroes In Crisis
- Doomsday Clock
3. The Dark Knight Returns Mode
The Future Story. An absolute classic mode which generates a big sweeping statement and vision of a whole new world. If most superhero stories are trapped in a perpetual Act 2 mode, where there can never be a ‘true’ ending, with a final Act 3 being eternally put off, this goes against that. This is the story of what comes after the ‘end’ of the typical superhero story as we know it. It’s the story after that invisible Act 3 of superhero stories, that takes a peek at the future that follows it, and thus uses that mechanism to question the entire enterprise.
It’s Batman as a Retired Old Man, having quit. It’s Superman as a Retired Farmer, having quit. It’s Wonder Woman awakening after the end of the world. It’s the final chapter of the crusade of the superheroes, and what awaits them at the end. These tend to be somber and morose, with the characters reflecting on all that they were, all that they did, and all that they had failed to be and do, and what it all means.
While it wasn’t originated by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s tremendous The Dark Knight Returns (1986), as even by 1981 you had prominent stories like Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Days Of Future Past, it was a mode most certainly cemented and codified for good by it. The impact and power of TDKR was so massive that the very idea of a Future Story, especially in a DC context, became bound to it. You thought ‘old future…’ and you thought of Bruce Wayne in those painted pages by Lynn Varley. You thought of the impossible-to-forget iconography and aesthetic power of The Dark Knight against the backdrop of a dark sky with lightning flashing behind him. The image’s sheer repetition and the endless homages and tributes paid to it alone ought to be a testament to its influence.
The freedom of this approach is that it divorces you from the typical limits, lines, and ‘rules’ of the traditional ‘mainline’ superhero figure and story. The endless list of ‘Well they can’t…you can’t…’ is put aside, as it becomes less about ‘the mainline’ or ‘the universe’ and just ‘the individual story.’ You’re freed from the confines of the typical superhero universe and construct and can just take the characters, their world, and ideas and progress them forward as you wish. And then you get to pose striking questions that examine and interrogate those figures, who they are, and what they mean and represent. It’s how and why even on the Marvel end, you eventually get Old Man Logan, and the film Logan. But it’s also why you get Zack Snyder’s Knightmare Future in the DCEU.
When done well, it’s powerful, evergreen work to last the ages that stands on its own. When done poorly, it’s a hodgepodge of aimless shock-driven choices without purpose or meaning. It’s a mode that seems deceptively easy to do because of its natural freedom, but it’s also one that due to that freedom reveals the mettle of the creators involved. Doing it right and making it work properly requires far more than just sticking to the basics and playing it safe.
Plenty of examples can be found of this type of Future Story enterprise, and they’re all revealing in their approaches:
- Kingdom Come
- DC One Million
- Batman Beyond
- Legion Of Super-Heroes: Millennium
- Batman: Last Knight On Earth
- Old Lady Harley
- Wonder Woman: Dead Earth
- Superman and The Authority
- DC Future State
- Catwoman: Lonely City
4. The Year One Mode
The Origin story. The early days. The beginnings. The roots. Who they are, and how they came to be. The precise opposite mode of The Future Story, it is The Past Story, refreshed over and over again, as each generation comes around to do their own iteration of it for a new contemporary moment. It is why we get both Batman Begins and The Batman, it is the starting point and baseline many work with. As Scott Snyder likes to famously tell people, Grant Morrison’s advice to him at his lowest point was ‘To make the character your own, you have to give them your own Birth and Death’. And that’s what would spawn Zero Year, which is now a key influence on the Matt Reeves/Robert Pattinson Batman in film.
But really, this is a mode that was cemented, like the prior three above, in the 1980’s with the DC Classics. And none more so than Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. A book of mythic stature and the very definition of ‘perennial classic’, the David Mazzucchelli masterpiece set the table for every ‘origin’ story that would follow. It had peers alongside it back in the day, like John Byrne’s Man Of Steel, but none codified the very idea of ‘Origin Story Done Right’ the way Year One did. It’s the reason why the name has been reused so much, and it’s why that name still holds some grandeur. It feels important and special, and that’s only because of the classic it evokes.
It’s perhaps the definitive and most popular mode by which A Big DC Story is constructed, for it is the beginning, the foundation and roots where it all started. Tellingly, the very idea of The New 52 was to reset the whole damn DC lineup and universe closer to this mode. When done well, it takes that which feels and seems familiar and drastically alters our understanding and view of it in ways we didn’t expect, like a great cover song that totally changes the way you thought the song played, and could play. When done poorly, it’s trite boring fare that can feel redundant and will immediately be lost in the shuffle, as 10 more new attempts step all over it on the way forward.
Plenty of examples of the mode exist, like so:
- Batman: Year One
- Man Of Steel
- Emerald Dawn
- Justice League: Year One
- Superman: Birthright
- Green Arrow: Year One
- Green Lantern: Secret Origin
- Superman: Secret Origin
- The Earth One Imprint
- Justice League: Origin
- Batman: Zero Year
- Wonder Woman: Year One
- Superman: Year One
5. The Versus/War Mode
The most essential and basic superhero story there is. A versus story. And when writ-large, it becomes a war story. Two big sides clashing against one-another. Armies assembling to take on one another. These can be simple straight-forward stories like ‘Everybody teams up against The One Big Bad Army,’ a tale of survival and unity, or it can be a conflict that splits sides and forces people to choose. It can be ‘Punch the zombies!’ or a civil war that pits brother against brother. It’s the simplest kind of ‘big’ superhero story, which makes it an ideal mode of event story.
Perhaps best codified for a modern DC in the 2000s by Geoff Johns’ brand of bombastic action comics full of armies beating the hell out of each other, this is an incredibly popular mode, particularly given Johns has gone onto define so much of DC since then. And it makes sense, given Johns’ sensibilities veer towards serving very basic impulses, which is is looking at two powerful figures and going ‘Well, who would win? How would it go down if they fought?’ It’s the idea of the ultimate spectacle, and this expands out into the biggest possible tapestry and canvas possible. Going beyond DC, there is a reason so many Marvel events use the title of ‘War’, with perhaps Civil War being the biggest expression of the sensibility. But even works like Secret Invasion are of this mold, despite lacking ‘War’ in the title.
When done well, it can be awe-inspiring and special, but done poorly, the whole affair can devolve into pointless and mindless violence that happens just for the sake of it, to turn the wheels of ‘plot,’ and little else.
Plenty of examples exist of the mode in various ways:
- Amazons Attack!
- Sinestro Corps War
- Blackest Night
- Darkseid War
- Justice League vs Suicide Squad
- Justice/Doom War
- DC vs Vampires
- Justice League vs Legion Of Super-Heroes
- War For Earth-3
- Batman vs Robin
6. The Death/Fall Of Mode
The Fall. The Death. It’s a classic. It’s the story immediately suggested for any and all stories, especially when you hear the words ‘eventful’ or ‘momentous.’ What is bigger than death? Every superhero has an origin–a birth. That means they also have an end–a death. Even if it is a temporary ‘fall’ or a temporary ‘death,’ the very notion feels Big and suggests a scope and scale that disrupts the natural status quo of the figure and their world.
Putting the words ‘Death Of’ or ‘Fall Of’ in the title is now an automatic way to signal a major event or initiative being launched, and for DC, it was perhaps best codified by the classic 1990’s Death Of Superman, which sold gangbusters and was covered even on National Television, gathering wider cultural interest. And it proved so successful that DC tried to mimic that sensibility and place other icons of theirs at the time in ‘Fall’ or ‘Death’ stories of sorts.
But the ‘fall of’ or ‘death of’ doesn’t necessarily have to just be that of an individual–it can be that of an institution, a team, or a place or a setting, which would radically alter the shape and nature of the superhero figures and their status quos. So it can have that broader sensibility. And when done well, a Fall/Death story-line can be a really affecting meditation on life, legacy, memory, and meaning. When done poorly, it feels like a waste of a character and potential, taking them off the board like that.
It’s the difference between a stellar classic like All-Star Superman which, despite being an ‘out of continuity’ standalone work, is a perennial classic about a dying Superman, and your average nothing-burger gimmick comics like Death Of The Justice League.
A number of examples of the mode can be seen here:
- A Death In The Family
- Death Of Superman
- Emerald Twilight
- Countdown To Infinite Crisis
- Titans/Young Justice: Graduation Day
- All-Star Superman
- Death of the New Gods
- Death Of The Justice League
7. The Rewritten Rules Mode
The hierarchy of power in the DC Universe has changed. Forget the world you thought you knew, forget the rules you thought were rules. Now things work differently. This can be a general hierarchical change, wherein there are new powers-that-be overseeing things, or it can be even more literal, with all of reality itself being warped and rewritten, to suit new rules and powers. It’s a mode that allows you to shake up the entire board of the superhero universe, as the pieces now suddenly go into all kinds of unexpected places they never would have otherwise.
It was perhaps best codified for DC during the era of Azrael as Batman, taking over for Batman and proving to be a monster operating with very different rules, but even more crucially and clearly, it was perhaps expressed via No Man’s Land. Another good instance is, of course, Lex Luthor as President in the 2000s. But perhaps more than anything else, it’s Flashpoint that best embodies it, right down to the conclusion, wherein all ‘rewritten rules’ stories tend to go to eventually. In the end, some semblance of the old ways and the rules of the past must be restored, as the hierarchy of power shifts right back. Some semblance of how things were prior is reached, even if not completely. It’s why in the end of Forever Evil, The Crime Syndicate must fall, and it’s why Checkmate must reform to counter Leviathan in the pages of Bendis’ stories, as Leviathan changes the hierarchy of power by destroying and dismantling the DCU world of espionage.
A Rewritten Rules story often tends to follow a Fall/Death mode story-line, for obvious reasons, as things change after. Done well, this can be a thrilling breath of fresh air, showcasing dark reigns or wild alternate reality rewrites that can be quite fun and offer a fresh perspective. Done poorly, they’re a drag that you want to escape from and can’t wait to see finish.
Examples of the mode are obvious and plenty:
- Underworld Unleashed
- No Man’s Land
- Lex 2000 (President Lex)
- Forever Evil
- Year Of The Villain: Hell Arisen
- Event Leviathan
- Milk Wars
- Green Lantern: Blackstars
- Lazarus Planet
8. The Rebirth Mode
The Revival. The Return. The Resurrection. The Restart. The Rebirth. So long as a superhero exists, they will be published. But in that publishing history, they will have slumps, low-points, they go out-of-favor, die or morph into something radically different than what they started as. And that means, inevitably, there will be a return, a ‘restoration’ of the old ways, particularly after any and all ‘fall’ or ‘death’ stories and tales of ‘rewritten rules’ that go on for a while. Someone will do a big, grand, celebratory ‘return’ comic that is eventful.
That is Rebirth, and it has been best codified for a modern DC by Geoff Johns’ own works bearing that very title. It grew to be so crucial that eventually the entire DC Universe went through a Rebirth, with an attempt at a ‘restoration’ for it across the board. But there’s other revivals and returns of note. There’s the 1990’s works of Revival/Return following the many ‘Death/Fall’ storylines that echo the sentiment just as well. And there’s other alternative exceptions in the modern era like Grant Morrison’s sprawling Return Of Bruce Wayne epic, which use the idea of a ‘Return’ to do gloriously weird and ambitious thesis statements .
Done well, the mode can be an effective way to get back to ‘the roots’ or ‘the basics’ and the central, fundamental appeal of an idea, a character or title. I can yield strikingly memorable thesis statements on the whole enterprise. Done poorly, it becomes dull-as-dish water and tastes like the blandest meat and potatoes that put you to sleep. It’s quite easy to do cheap nostalgia porn in this mode.
Examples of this mode, to name a few:
- The Return Of Superman
- Knight’s End
- Green Lantern: Rebirth
- Flash: Rebirth
- The Return Of Bruce Wayne
- DC Universe: Rebirth
9. The 52 Effect
The weekly series has been a staple of comics for years, but perhaps no weekly series proved to be quite so eventful, successful and critically beloved as 52. And that’s meant that ever since, superhero comics have been chasing that dragon to capture that lightning in the bottle once again. They all want to have the 52 effect. And the end result is stories that feel different from their other peers, in that they can’t just be ‘quick bursts’ of eventful story that can be wrapped up in under 13 issues. No, this requires story material that’s bigger, larger, and lasts longer, like multiple seasons of TV. And that means this is a mode defined mostly by format, with the actual stories being hybrids of all of the aforementioned modes above.
The above modes naturally contain hybrids. Just look at Identity Crisis and Heroes In Crisis not being in the Crisis section, or how some of Johns’ Wars or Rewritten Rules stories could just as well be considered Crisises. But The 52 Effect as a mode unto its own, one defined by format, felt worth including and outlining, as it is very much a loud expression of a Big DC Story. But you’ll also find iterations of it over at Marvel, as 52-veterans like Waid would also participate in big shared-universe weekly series there like Avengers: No Surrender and Avengers: No Road Home.
Given its nature as so bound to the long-running serialized format though, this is the mode most unadaptable to movies, but deeply well suited to TV seasons. Particularly classical Network TV with 24 episodes, wherein a great deal of ground can be covered. But given the rise of Prestige TV, an emphasis on move to streaming, and shorter season orders, it is something even TV struggles with deeply. Though an attempt at this sort of Big Picture long-form season long storytelling aiming to be a Big DC Epic can be seen in Young Justice, and was a hallmark of the best of the Justice League Unlimited animated series. But given the scarcity of this, and this being done well, which is a hugely impossible difficulty even for the comics, this mode thrives best and is still most suited to serialized comics.
When done well, it can be awe-inspiring and the best of shared universe superhero comics have to offer. When done poorly, it reminds you why exactly you wanted to quit these damn things all those times.
Examples of this mode are works such as:
- Countdown to Final Crisis
- Brightest Day
- Justice League: Generation Lost
- Batman Eternal
- Batman and Robin Eternal
- The New 52: Future’s End
- Earth 2: World’s End
Evidently numerous stories here can (and do) fit multiple modes (for instance, Cooke’s New Frontier is of the Watchmen Mode but is also a clean fit for The Year One mode), though they’ve been listed under only one mode here based on their most standout quality. And when it concerns ‘out of continuity’ works, evergreen or otherwise, the ‘alternate reality’ stories (whether it be All-Star Superman, New Frontier, Catwoman: Lonely City, etc) they fit into the modes they most clearly draw upon. All-Star being an explicit Death story, New Frontier being in clear dialogue with Watchmen, and Lonely City very much approaching the TDKR mode in a fresh way.
In the end, while DC continually obsesses over Crisis disaster stories, even in its filmic iteration and media- it need not necessarily do that. There are plenty of other options, with the Watchmen TV show and its success being a blatant display of how well and successfully drawing upon Watchmen’s lessons as a mystery drama and thriller translates naturally to Prestige Television. But it could just as easily make for compelling films as well. If there’s anything Darwyn Cooke tried to prove via New Frontier, it’s how you can tell compelling, visually thrilling character-driven stories that satisfyingly sprawl across a whole universe. There are other ways to broach Big DC Stories, as even a story like 52 is merely extending that New Frontier sensibility onto an even bigger canvas that sprawls across a larger web of story.
Across decades now, these are the modes and frameworks by which we seem to have historically conceptualized and framed our ideas of ‘The Big DC Story’. And that’s something to think about, the limitations, as the modes we have outlined help us consider all the ways in which we have not thought to imagine Big DC Stories to date. What has been done helps us realize what has not been done. Where we’ve been is how we realize- where we must go next.