Welcome to 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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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?