Ask the Professor #15 — Current Marvel and DC Continuity

I’ve been out of comics since 2003 and want to get back in.  What major
storylines do I need to catch up on in the Marvel/DC universes?

 Whooo… OK, Nathan, but be warned: It’s not one long story, but two, since both companies have been pushing company-wide crossovers for the last few years.
Let’s start with DC; in the early 00’s, they realized that the 20th anniversary of their second-most-successful Big Event ever, Crisis on Infinite Earths, was approaching, and wanted to do something special to commemorate it. In 2004, the JLA mini-series Identity Crisis kicked things off with a murder mystery by novelist Brad Meltzer, involving the death of Sue Dibney, the Elongated Man’s wife. I won’t spoil the murderer’s identity, except to say that it was a member of the JLA’s extended family, and that, along with plot revelations of past events like the JLA brainwashing super-villains (and one villain having raped Sue years previously) led to a considerable darkening of the DC Universe. This darkening extended over the line for the next year, culminating in the mini-series Infinite Crisis, wherein characters who’d been exiled from the DC Universe proper at the end of the original Crisis (principally, the Golden-Age Superman, his wife Lois, the Silver-Age Superboy, and the Earth-Three Lex Luthor) become disgruntled while watching the coarsening of the regular DC Universe from afar, and decide to break back into it to set things right. Many things happen, but at the end the regular DC “Big Three” — Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman — are, for various reasons, knocked out of action for a year.
By now, it was 2006, and DC followed Infinite Crisis by (a) kicking all its titles forward a year, in a stunt labeled “One Year Later.” and (b) beginning a weekly, year-long mini-series called 52, meant to explain what happened to Earth during that year when its main heroes were out of commission. 52 is pretty cool, mostly because of its four-person writing team: Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Mark Waid and Greg Rucka, (along with Keith Giffen, who also provided layouts for the various artists). That’s a lot of potentially good writing there, and 52‘s focus on imaginative stories and clear, complete character arcs made it work. Unfortunately, DC immediately followed it up with Countdown, yet another weekly year-long series, supposedly leading up to yet another Crisis mini-series. Countdown didn’t work very well, mostly because it didn’t use any of 52‘s writers (well, they were understandably all burned out), and, worse, ignored 52‘s lessons about what would make a weekly series work. Anyway, this all led to Final Crisis (its title hopefully not a lie), which is Grant Morrison and J. G. Jones’s current attempt (the third issue ships this week) to wrap everything up and end the mega-events at DC for a while.

Meanwhile, over at Marvel, a different series of crossovers have been occurring. The first was Civil War, in 2006, wherein the US passes a Superhero Registration Act after numerous civilian schoolkids are killed in a superhero/villain confrontation. The Act requires that anyone with powers register with the government, reveal their identity, receive training, and become part of a vast law-enforcement group. This cause the heroes to split down the middle: Tony Stark, Reed Richard, and some others feel like the superhero community has to go along with the government.. Captain America, Luke Cage, and others think it’s an unAmerican violation of civil rights. Much punching ensues, but what’s significant is, at the end, one side wins and the other loses, but no reset button is hit — the losers  go underground, refuse to concede, and continue their fight, and these events affect all the books set in the Marvel Universe from then on.
The next big event was World War Hulk.  Earlier, the Hulk, after a particularly savage rampage in Las Vegas, had been tricked by most of the main Big Cheeses in the MU — Richards, Stark, Dr. Strange, Professor Xavier and Black Bolt — into being exiled into space, where he eventually ended up on a barbarian planet, conquered it, watched most of it get blown up, blamed the Earth heroes for it, and came roaring back at the head of an alien armada to kick everybody’s ass.
Solving the Hulk problem might have brought the divided heroes together, but before that could happen a third threat presented itself instead — Secret Invasion, the gradual realization that a number of Earth heroes, villains and associates had been replaced by Skrulls, the shape-changing aliens who’d been around since Fantastic Four #2. Marvel (in the person of writer Brian Michael Bendis) had apparently been laying groundwork for this story for at least three or four years, and 2008 has been the payoff, as now an army of Skrulls, all with superpowers, has attacked the planet, and the heroes have no idea whom to trust, or how to defeat the invading aliens.
That’s the current situation at Marvel, halfway through the Secret Invasion mini-series. It’s not the whole story, of course — we haven’t even discussed Spider-Man, and his deal with the devil, or the death and rebirth of Thor, or the death of Captain America, or a number of other developments — but hey, Nathan, for a free blog this is all you’re gonna get for now.

About Phil

With 40 years of experience in comic reading, collecting and reviewing, English Professor Phil Mateer has an encyclopedic mind for comics. Feel free to ask Phil about storylines, characters, artists or for that matter, any comic book trivia. He will post your questions and answers on the AABC blog. His knowledge is unparalleled! He is also our warehouse manager, so if you are looking for that hard to find comic book, ask Phil!
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