About these ads

Retcon: Roy Thomas And Earth-2

Longbox Graveyard #124

Welcome to Super-Blog Team-Up!

Super Blog Team-Up!

Today, my esteemed fellow bloggers and I are looking at “retcons” in comics — those moments of “retroactive continuity” that seek to clean up or reinvigorate the creaky comics continuity that sometimes encumbers our favorite characters. Over time, “retcon” has become a pejorative term, applied to creators backing away from some previous change, or altering a character’s core values after-the-fact. At worst, “retconning” yields to “rebooting,” where stakeholders wave the white flag, wipe everything away, and pledge that this time they’ll get it right!

Retcon!

Attached as we are to our comics and our continuity, and concerned that vast swaths of our collections might suddenly “no longer count,” comics fans are justifiably touchy about retcons. We will delight in a clever reinvention of a beloved character — a “new take” that doesn’t do violence to the past so much as it sees the character through a new, more contemporary lens — but we prefer that the past remain unchanged. If Godzilla invaded New York while wearing a trench coat, or Doctor Doom teamed up with Henry Kissinger, then we might like those moments forgotten, but we don’t want them overturned or rationalized away as part of some complicated retcon. Just let leave those ghosts alone.

But there was a time when retconning was held in high esteem. The term was even considered a compliment!

I’m referring to the work of the patron saint of comic book retcons — Roy Thomas. In particular, I’m referring to his work on DC’s “Earth 2” characters in the 1980s.

Earth-2 Heroes!

By the time Roy Thomas arrived at DC Comics in 1981, he was ideally prepared for the job of sorting out the history of Earth 2. After all, the Justice Society of America were Thomas’ favorite heroes, and if Thomas hadn’t quit DC after a brief and unpleasant tenure in 1965, he might have spent his first years in the comics business writing about Hourman and the Star-Spangled Kid instead of helping build the foundations of the Marvel Universe.

Instead, Thomas remained at Marvel for fifteen years, where he developed skills that would serve him well as a master of the (right kind) of retcon. First, Thomas was an unapologetic fan of comics, and an historian of the same — his editorship of the long-running fanzine, Alter Ego, predated his comics career, and continues to this day. That obsession gave Thomas an encyclopedic knowledge of old plots and characters, which he mined for his own work, breathing new life into forgotten and faded heroes.

Alter Ego

To this appreciation of characters with minimal or fractured histories, Thomas added a fascination with imaginary histories, as exemplified by his long run on Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian with Barry Windsor-Smith and John Buscema. Working from the fan-created essay “A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career,” Thomas sketched out a long-range plan for Conan’s adventures, and then wrote within those self-imposed guidelines, seeking to expand on Robert E. Howard’s original work while not violating the same. The classic Thomas/Buscema collaboration on Conan would end when Thomas left Marvel in 1981, but Marvel’s loss would be DC’s gain when Thomas signed a three-year contract with DC.

And waiting for Thomas at DC were his original loves — the Justice Society of America!

Justice Society of America

That the Justice Society was still around at all owed to the unanticipated side-effects of a wild outburst of creativity twenty years earlier. “The Flash of Two Worlds,” from Flash #123 was a seminal comic story, bringing together Barry Allen, the modern Flash, with his Golden Age counterpart, Jay Garrick. Robert Kanigher had played with DC history from the very first issue of Flash’s reintroduction in Showcase #4, showing Barry Allen getting the idea for his secret identity by reading a Golden Age Flash comic, but “Flash Of Two Worlds” made that meta-history personal. Now, not only did those Golden Age Flash stories “really happen,” they were still happening — in a parallel dimension quickly come to be known as “Earth 2,” where the original Golden Age versions of characters like Flash and Green Lantern were still running around in air raid helmets and opera capes.

Flash #123

It was a brilliant conceit. Sure, it was confusing to have two Flashes, and two Green Lanterns, while some characters lived only in one world, and still others were born on one world, and moved to the other! But few complained when the Justice League and the Justice Society started hooking up for annual co-adventures, which became a window onto Earth-2 for the fans, and by extension a means of revisiting and remembering DC’s genuinely golden Golden Age history of the 1940s. In a single stroke, DC doubled their superhero character library and gained something that Marvel could not claim, at least on such a scale — namely, a history that predated 1961! So popular were the Earth-2 Justice Society characters that DC began publishing new adventures in the 1970s, with Power Girl debuting with the team, and the Justice Society itself finally getting an origin story in 1977’s DC Special #29 … almost forty years after the team’s first appearance.

And that’s how Roy Thomas found the shop when he arrived at DC in 1981, and engineered the very first retcon.

Don’t believe me? No less unimpeachable an authority than the mighty Wikipedia attributes the first publication of the term “retroactive continuity” to the letters page of 1983’s All-Star Squadron #18. It is a term that Thomas seemed to embrace, recognizing, as it did, his singular devotion to comics history even as he crafted new tales set in the “past.”

The Origin of "Retroactive Continuity!"

All-Star Squadron was the flagship book of Thomas’ retcon work at DC. As he had done with Marvel’s Invaders, Thomas used World War II as the backdrop for the superhero tales of All-Star Squadron, and along the way sought to apply a new coat of paint to the imaginary history of the Golden Age Justice Society. Like the imaginary history he’d observed with Conan, Thomas considered the stories published in the Golden Age as the true but incomplete history of the Justice Society, and set out to tell new stories set in the same era.

All-Star Squadron #1

Thomas’ All-Star Squadron were called together by President Roosevelt on the eve of World War II, and would include not only members of the Justice Society, but also wartime-era Quality Comics characters that had been acquired by DC, like Plastic Man, or then-modern characters like Gerry Conway’s World War II hero, Steel, the Indestructible Man, who had debuted in 1978. For sixty-seven issues, Thomas would weave his alternate superhero history of World War II, indulging his love of obscure heroes and historical events, telling two-fisted comic book war stories, and also looking with a modern eye at the era’s foibles — for example introducing Amazing Man as a black superhero, and Tsunami as a Japanese hero, helping frame stories examining racism in original comics from the war era.

I was a devoted fan of All-Star Squadron through the 1980s, and harbor fond memories of the series. It was delightful to discover the heroes of DC’s past. I particularly enjoyed it when Thomas created a story around some mad bit of trivia, such as the secret origin of the Tarantula from issue #18. The impetus behind that particular story was described on the issue’s letter page, and illuminates everything that was wonderful about All-Star Squadron — and to Thomas’ approach to “retconning.”

All-Star Squadron #18

All-Star Squadron spawned a spin-off series — Infinity, Inc., detailing the adventures of a new generation of Justice Society-related heroes in the then-contemporary 1980s of Earth-2 — as well the America vs. The Justice Society mini-series, which is a dense read as a comic, but an amazing bit of comics scholarship, examining the history of the Justice Society in detail, and fitting that history into the framework that Thomas and other creators had established in their post-Golden Age Justice Society stories.

Infinity Inc. #1

Why Thomas’ retconning succeeded, where so many others have failed, comes down to a couple factors. For one, Thomas didn’t throw things away if they failed to fit his narrative — if anything, he made things harder on himself by trying to honor every last bit of history and trivia from the Golden Age. Thomas wasn’t a “retconner” (as we’ve come to understand the term) so much as he was a curator … or a gardner, trimming back the weeds and bringing out the colors in a long-neglected garden. Second, I suspect Thomas pretty much had his own way in writing these books. The obscure nature of so many of these heroes must have afforded Thomas the opportunity to take chances, and corporate concern over the handling of precious assets like the “real” Batman or Superman or Wonder Woman would have been muted.

Unfortunately, most of Thomas’ efforts would come to ruin with 1985’s Crisis On Infinite Earths, DC’s ambitious “reboot” of their comics universe. One of the goals of Crisis was to clean up DC’s continuity — with its conflicting origins and multiple versions of iconic characters — and that goal was effectively a shaped charge aimed at the heart of Thomas’ work with Earth-2. Neither All-Star Squadron nor Infinity Inc. long survived the ultimate retcon of Crisis on Infinite Earths. Thomas kept his story going for awhile, telling the tale of DC’s reconfigured World War II era with Young All-Stars, but the magic was gone, and the series was cancelled after thirty-one issues.

Crisis On Infinite Earths #1

In the decades to come, DC would return to Earth-2 — and Earth-2 is a well-received portion of DC’s publication slate right now — but for me, the unique and funky majesty of the wildly inconsistent Earth-2 that Roy Thomas honored in his work has been lost to the ages. Even the best intentions can have unintended consequences. I remember being excited for Crisis on Infinite Earths, and welcoming DC’s attempt to straighten out their continuity, but looking back on it all these years later, I see Crisis only for its worst excesses — for replacing Thomas’ scholarly “retconing” with “rebooting,” and for opening the door to the endless wrangling that has characterized post-Crisis DC stories, with worlds and histories again altered and overturned in pursuit of boosted circulation and a too-late desire to address the mistakes of the past. The peculiar magic that was DC’s Earth-2 has not been so easily reclaimed.

Fortunately, the original revamp of Earth-2 is still easy to enjoy, owing to the affordable prices of books like All-Star Squadron and Infinity Incorporated on the back-issue market. When next you tire of editorial fiat undoing the worlds, characters, and stories you think of as your own, I invite you to visit the 1940s through the lens of these unique 1980s comics, and to return to an era when comics weren’t afraid to be a little crazy and even cheerfully goofy … and when “retcon” promised new possibilities for forgotten heroes, rather than the peremptory negation of the heartfelt efforts of creators that had come before.

Special thanks for Mr. Roy Thomas for graciously reviewing a pre-publication draft of this article!

For more Super-Blog Team-Up “retcon” retrospectives, be sure to check out these affiliated blogs!

Superhero Satellite: RETCON: Crisis on Continuity Earths
Fantastiverse: Age of the Retcon: Bucky 4.0 – The Winter Soldier
Silver Age Sensations: The Red, White, and Blue Silver Age Avenger!
Flodo’s Page: Green Lantern: Secret Origins – Revision or Retcon?
Chasing Amazing: Brand New Day and the Retcon of Harry Osborn
Between The Pages: Good Cowboys Always Shoot First
Bronze Age Babies: Was The Vision Really Carrying A Torch?
Superior Spider-Talk: Peter Parker: Child of Radioactivity or Mysticism?

IN TWO WEEKS: #125 Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game vs. DC Comics Deck-Building Game!

About these ads

About Longbox Graveyard

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978. There's a new blog every odd Wednesday at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on February 19, 2014, in Super-Blog Team-Up and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 47 Comments.

  1. I absolutely loved All-Star Squadron. One of the many crimes of Crisis on Infinite Earths was that it effectively killed this wonderful series. I felt like I was learning a bit about WWII history as I read this series, and you could tell that Roy Thomas majored in history in college and was a WWII buff with the detail here. Roy also took these Golden Age heroes, many of whom I’d never heard of before, and brought them to life for me, and made me care about them. I think the characterization here was more detailed and better (or perhaps more modern) than Golden Age comics. The stories were also very entertaining, with many multi-part stories, again, something I don’t think they did in the Golden Age. Finally, while the turnover rate of the artists was extremely high on thie series, Roy had a knack for always finding very good artists to work on this. The series started to decline a bit (especially the art) beginning somewhere around the time of the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossovers. While the post-Crisis follow-up, Young All Stars, was good, the magic of this series was lost by then. A shame, as I’d love to have seen what Roy had planned for this series throughout the rest of WWII, instead of just the first few months that we got to see.

    By the way, did Roy coin the term retcon? I know he used it in an early letter column of All-Star Squadron. Of course, one reason it’s not pejoratively used here is because Roy has such fondness for what he’s “retconning” as opposed to trying to wipe the slate clean or re-write some perceived “error”.

    Like

    • Roy was gracious enough to read a pre-publication version of this article, and did not claim to invent the term “ret-con,” saying it must have come from the fans (something he said was also the case with “Kree/Skrull War,” by the way) … between Wikipedia, the letter excerpt printed in my article, and Roy’s own recollection, it seems likely the term was mooted by a fan at a convention, then mentioned on the letters page of All-Star Squadron #18, then embraced by Roy and it got momentum after that.

      Comic-book scholarship, comin’ atcha!

      Thanks for reading and posting, Dave, and you’re right, this whole line of comics was really gutted by Crisis. Thomas suggested in his correspondence that the books might have continued if not for that event.

      Like

      • Thanks for the retcon info Paul!

        That’s also very cool that Roy did a pre-read on your article. I’m not surprised that he’d do that. He seems pretty accessible. I’m also not surprised that the series might have continued if not for Crisis. Roy was the good trooper in the letter col of ASS (not a great acroynm, eh?) in discussing Crisis but I have to imagine that he was having a ball writing the series and COII threw a monkey wrench into the works, to say the least. He’d probably just as soon not have had Crisis happen, especially since he loved the Earth 2 heroes, and COII did away with earth 2.

        Like

  2. Fantastic post, and a rather nice tribute to Roy Thomas. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. And yes, I also prefer Roy’s retconning to rebooting – although Roy was in a class all by himself when it came to retcons.
    All Star Squadron was easily my favorite DC title back in the early ’80s (together with the New Teen Titans and the Legion). I loved the way Roy’s used the World War II setting to create a really retro feel while still writing very fresh stories.

    Like

    • Thomas was a unique voice in comics and I miss his approach on these time-lost heroes. Reverence for the past combined with a spirit of adventure and reinvention … I far prefer it to rebooting. And I miss his Earth-2.

      Like

  3. Love this!

    I have never been much of a DC comics person, preferring Marvel – but I have come to appreciate the elegance of the multiple Earths ways of handling continuity and wish it was more widely adopted.

    Oh, and thanks for the reference to the first appearance of ret-con in print! I am sure that will come up in my work sometime!

    P.S. I found my way over here from Bronze Age Babies. The Super-Blog Team-Up was a great idea!

    Like

    • It was a delight to garner an affiliation with Bronze Age Babies — I’ve long admired that blog, and was flattered when they joined us for this round of Super-Blog Team-Up.

      I was also a latecomer to DC, not really getting into their books before 1982 or so, but Thomas’ work in that era was always among my favorites, specifically because the “old” stuff he wrote about was so fresh to me.

      Thanks for reading and posting, Osvaldo … now that you’ve found me, I hope you stick around and become a regular. You can find a list of all my past articles in my checklist — feel free to comment on any of them, it helps keep the past alive!

      Like

  4. I also came here from Bronze Age Babies and I’m glad I did. I always liked All-Star Squadron, especially when they used characters I hadn’t seen elsewhere. One of my favourite issues was #31, with the meeting of the full team and those two double-page spreads showing all the heroes! When Who’s Who came out, I went through and looked up all the obscure characters, so I could find out more about them.

    Like

  5. I certainly agree with your thoughts regarding Crisis’ lasting effects on the DCU. It not only needlessly screwed up the wonderful multiple Earths and fascinating history Roy Thomas created, but also had an impact on the Legion (although it didn’t have to). Now it seems as though the company is locked in an endless cycle of reboots. Thankfully we still have our old comics! Nicely done post Paul.

    Like

    • Thanks, Karen. I wish I could claim to have been a Nostradamus on this one, but I was enthusiastic for Crisis when it came out, and thought cleaning up DC’s continuity would be a good idea. I enjoyed the series and many of the rebooted DC books that followed. But looking back on it, I can see Crisis as a watershed of the worst kind, full of all kinds of unintentional consequences, and helping set in motion many of the publication patterns that have helped keep me away from comics to this day (such as big editorial cross-overs every summer and, yes, ret-cons and reboots).

      Alas!

      Like

      • As an addendum to my comment above, I should also note that I also thought Crisis was a good idea, and the immediate aftermath didn’t seem so bad – I thought the rejuvenated Superman in particular was a vast improvement.
        But all in all, in hindsight I would agree that Crisis generated more negatives than positives.

        Like

        • I retain fond memories of Byrne’s Man of Steel, and need to get around to reviewing it here someday.

          Overall, DC was a great place to be in the 1980s. We had Watchmen, Swamp Thing, Dark Knight, the undeniably-exciting Crisis and the generally well-executed line-wide reboot — I was fully engaged by all of it.

          Maybe contemporary fans feel the same about their funnybooks, I dunno. I do know that when DC did it with Crisis I would have been less engaged if I viewed it as an inevitability that it would all happen all over again in a year or two.

          Like

  6. Paul —

    Love your article — content, lay-out, you name it. Very well-researched. But I think the line I’ll take away, and that really ties right into what we did at the BAB today with the Vision/Torch retcons, is your comparison of Roy Thomas to a curator of history. Sadly, that’s what John Byrne walked all over when he destroyed the Vision and years and years of backstory.

    Carry on, my friend!

    Doug

    Like

  7. Thanks for a very interesting column! Another visitor from Bronze Age Babies; and another blog has left me with more reading to do. Paul, I too was fired up about Crisis, and enjoyed the series greatly. The goal of simplified continuities was admirable, but as you say, led eventually to today’s annual upheavals. The series itself remains a good read, though…

    Like

    • The Crisis series was awesome! Wolfman and Perez brought their A-game. It’s the impact of the series I lament, not the series itself … but like you note, we were both on board at the time. Best laid plans and all that!

      And welcome to another Bronze Age Babies reader! I love you guys — you’re classing the joint up around here! I hope you like what you see and become a regular, comments are always welcome!

      Like

      • Me too. By itself, Crisis was enjoyable. George Perez, at the peak of his powers, drawing every hero in the DC universe (OK, except Hal Jordan), how can that not be awesome?! However, it wreaked havoc still felt to this day. In retrospect, I think DC had a great thing going with the multiverse. They broke it, and have tried to glue it back together, but it’ll never be the same.

        Like

  8. Very interesting post, Paul. Retcons are a necessary evil in a medium that has been around for 75 plus years but it is a tragedy to see favourite stories and characters tossed to the wayside with little or no consideration for the great work that had come before.

    Like

    • At the risk of being pedantic, I’ll offer that retcons might be a necessary evil in serial medium that’s been around for 75 years. Kids in the Peanuts strip and most of the core Disney icons have managed to live in an “eternal now” without retconning … though Disney seems to try to reposition their characters for contemporary audiences every couple years with varying degrees of success (which is why I consider the icons ageless — they keep going back to those original characters, and they always work).

      With comics, I think the problems arise with the peculiar expectation that the characters will age (possibly owing to contemporary cultural and political elements featured in the stories themselves), along with the pernicious tendrils of continuity that accompany monthly serial storytelling. These comics franchises inevitably build up friction and need to be purged every once in awhile. But this seems an affection almost unique to comics — for instance, the Simpsons have been in our homes every week for 25 years, and never aged a day, yet that show has plenty of mythology and continuity. Likewise, the Archies characters have changed with the times (sort of) but they’ve been teenagers longer than I’ve been alive.

      It’s peculiar. It might just be that comics fans are insane!

      Like

  9. Excellent article, and my brain is stunned from learning the secret origin of the term Retcon! It sounds like All-Star Squadron was more about expanding history than re-writing it, celebrating history instead of bulldozing its inconveniences. It brings to mind the WWII-themed stories Thomas worked on for three years prior in Marvel’s Invaders.

    Like

    • That is a good way to put it. Roy expanded rather than re-wrote. One can tell that Roy has affection for and knowledge of what he’s “retconning” rather than just wanting to leave his own mark. He’s a bit like someone lovingly restoring a Renaissance artwork, adding a needed touch here and there, and cleaning things up, rather than simply painting a new work right over top of the old one, leaving it for researchers hundreds of years later to discover via x-rays that there is a different painting underneath.

      Like

    • Yeah, I stumbled on that “ret-con” citation while putting together the article, which made for a nice cherry on top — mostly I was looking for a way to write an appreciation of All-Star Squadron without going in and reviewing the entire series. The books remain on my reading stack and I will get (back) to them in time — they have a kind of Silver Age vibe, meaning you have to be in the right headspace to enjoy them (but if you are, there’s nothing better).

      Like

      • I am really looking forward to those reviews! I have roughly half of the series, with intermittent missing issues, so maybe you can fill me in on what I’m missing.

        Like

  10. Growing up, I was a mega fan of the All-Star Squadron. Being obsessed about the 2nd world war will sort of do that to you, haha. I used to pass by longboxes in my local flea-market that were seemingly filled to the brim with All-Star Squadron, Infinity Inc., and those weird issues of World’s Finest with the Super-Sons. I learned of the Justice Society via the All-Stars, and they remain my favorite super-team to this day! About 2 months ago, I read the entire run of All-Star Squadron.

    It wasn’t as good as I recall it being, of course, what is in comparison to the halcyon days of our misspend youths? One thing that still stood strong though was the sheer love and passion Roy Thomas has(d) for the characters. Even though much of it is mired in a barrage of expositional dialogue or when something hokey happens (such as Firebrand becoming a racist against Japanese people and then shaking it off in a span of what seemed to be 4 pages!) it still possesses a charm unlike any other contemporary comic of its era, perhaps because of what you said earlier in a response to a comment where you mention that it reads more like a Silver Age comic. That was spot on! It really does have a Silver Age feel.

    Also, this is the comic where I first was exposed to Captain Marvel, which you will get to read more about soon!

    Like

    • Ah ha, I might have known you were a fellow All-Star Squadron fan.

      You know, if you wanted a subject for another guest blog after finishing your upcoming Big Red Cheese appreciation, the All-Star Squadron would make a very good choice. Think about it. I have those books on my to-be-read stack but it will be months (years?) before I get around to it, and even then I might not do a review. I do love those books, though, and would like to see them better covered here.

      Like

      • I can certainly do that. I was hoping to do Punisher next, with the focus being on his B&W Magazine appearances in the 70’s, but I’d certainly love to go back and look at All-Star Squadron again! The series, even when it ebbs, is still lots of fun, and will always hold a special place in my heart.

        Like

  1. Pingback: SUPER-BLOG TEAM UP Vol. 2 (#7 of 9) RETCON: Crisis On Continuity Earths | The SuperHero Satellite

  2. Pingback: Peter Parker: Child of Radioactivity or Mysticism? | Superior Spider Talk

  3. Pingback: Blown Away! | Longbox Graveyard

  4. Pingback: The Comic-Verse: Awesome Art & The Top 15 Featured Links (02/16/14-02/21/14) | The Speech Bubble

  5. Pingback: The Day the Nazis Ruled Latveria, and Other Astonishing Tales! | Mars Will Send No More

  6. Pingback: Longbox Soapbox (Summer 2014) | Longbox Graveyard

  7. Pingback: All This And World War Too! | Longbox Graveyard

  8. Pingback: Countdown To Super-Blog Team-Up! | Longbox Graveyard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,831 other followers

%d bloggers like this: