Monday, July 09, 2007

Continuity Notes: Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Pocket Universe

In the mid-'80s, DC decided to streamline its continuity with a 12-issue miniseries called Crisis on Infinite Earths (COIE). Worlds lived, worlds died, and nothing was ever the same again. The main effect of COIE was to reduce DC's reality from a multiverse, with an infinite number of parallel Earths, down to a single universe in which all of its in-continuity characters would live. This didn't affect the Legion much, as they didn't have much of a history of parallel-world stories. The only effect it had on them, for the most part, was that Supergirl had been killed and removed from continuity.

Or that's what everyone figured at the time.

Problem was, DC didn't really have all its ducks in a row coming out of COIE. They used it as an opportunity to restart a bunch of characters, but those restarts didn't happen until some time after COIE finished. Many classic post-COIE takes on characters only took effect after the first post-COIE appearances of those characters. I'm thinking of Hawkman, the Question, Captain Atom... and Superman.

DC brought in legendary writer/artist John Byrne to revamp Superman after COIE. This was really a big deal, and DC made much of it. Anyway, Byrne made a lot of changes to Superman and his mythos, and one of the things he did was to get rid of a lot of stuff. For one thing, Byrne wanted Superman to be the lone survivor of Krypton: no Supergirl, no Krypto, no Beppo the Super-Monkey... For another, Byrne had Superman becoming a superhero for the first time as an adult. No Superboy.

Obviously, this caused problems for the Legion, whose history was full of Superboy and was kind of meaningless without him. A lot of people blame Byrne for this, for cutting the legs out from under the Legion. Byrne claims he warned DC that what he was planning could mess up the Legion, but DC blew off his concerns until it was too late. I don't really care who's at fault.

Paul Levitz came up with a solution: the pocket universe. It worked this way:

The destiny of the 30th century, the future inhabited by the Legion, was to be ruled over by the evil and immensely powerful wizard Mordru. The only one who could stop him was another LSH villain, the likewise immensely powerful Time Trapper. The Trapper decided to fight Mordru indirectly: he took a slice of time and grew a whole little universe out of it, that he protected himself with his own powers (so that it wasn't destroyed by COIE). He also rigged it so that when the founding Legionnaires went back in time, they entered this pocket universe. See, the pocket universe had a Superboy in it, unlike the new post-COIE DCU. That was Levitz's continuity fix: any Legion story involving travel back to the 20th century was set in the Time Trapper's little toy universe, rather than the real DCU; any story about Superboy was a story about the pocket universe Superboy. The Trapper's plan was that this way, he could manipulate things so that the Legion would counteract Mordru and the Trapper would be able to rule everything. Of course, the Legion did counteract Mordru, but also fought the Trapper himself, so it wasn't a perfect plan.

Anyway, in the story in which this was all revealed, the Legion met Byrne's Superman (who didn't remember them, of course; he'd never met them!) and the pocket universe Superboy was killed. Killed, but not retroactively removed from existence, you understand: the Legion's past with this Superboy was unchanged.

I've heard some speculation about the 2x+unboot Legion who recently appeared in the JLA/JSA crossover and how maybe they had something to do with the pocket universe. (And I know that there was some nonsense about some version of Supergirl coming from the pocket universe.) But look: the pocket universe is not a time-honoured part of DC reality. If someone at DC uses this pocket universe now, it's only because he or she has an inexplicable and perverse fascination with complicating things for no good reason. The pocket universe was nothing more than one of Paul Levitz's cheap tricks*, an apotropaic oojah he beckoned into existence to protect the Legion from the bad mojo of John Byrne's intrusive continuity. It was meant to be used once and forgotten about, it hasn't existed since Mon-El polished off the Time Trapper back in 1990 (our time), and as far as I can tell there's no good reason for it ever to be mentioned in a comic book again. But it did do what it was meant to do: preserve a) the Legion's past, and b) Byrne's vision of Superman, simultaneously.

(You could, if you wanted, have an argument about whether this clever pocket universe retcon should extend back into pre-COIE continuity. In other words, when reading old Silver Age Legion stories, should one keep in mind that the Superboy in these stories isn't an Earth-1 character, but comes from the pocket universe? Or should we consider the pocket universe to be something that was only added to DC reality after COIE? My take on it is that you can think of it whichever way you want; it really doesn't make any difference.

(Correction: I just reread the comics in question and I got this part wrong. The Trapper created the pocket universe specifically to cope with the changes of COIE. He also had some kind of notion about using his created Superboy for some kind of world domination. The stuff I said about Mordru is true but was not established in the comics until later. Serves me right for trying to do this stuff from memory. Oh well; I said at the start of this little project that I was going to make mistakes. I'm surprised nobody called me on this point in the comments.))

There were still objections to be made about how all this fit together. Like, what about Supergirl? What about Mon-El? What about all the other times the Legion appeared in the 20th century, and met Batman or the Justice League or even Superman himself? But at least now the problems were small enough that they could be explained away or dismissed. The Legion's history was mostly intact and Superboy was out of the picture. So everybody was happy. Right?


(continued here)

* which I mean in a good way! Where would storytelling be without cheap tricks?

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Blogger Michael said...

Turns out I've had a companion piece to this sitting in my draft folder, waiting for the right time. It's a John Byrne interview from CBG wherein he gives his side of the story.

4:01 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks. By the way, how come you didn't catch my mistake (since corrected above) in this post? I was sure that that's what your comment was going to be about.

I believe Byrne, of course, when he says what he said in that interview. I believe everything.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Luke said...

Very interesting post. I am very much looking forward to the second part. The "pocket universe" seems like a pretty elegant solution to a pretty gnarly problem (they NEED Superboy after all, at least at the start), but I agree: bringing it back at this point would be suspect.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

The main reason I didn't catch the mistake is that it was late and I didn't read it carefully. I remembered just enough that it sounded plausible at 4 a.m.

The Pocket Universe (or PU) was supposed to preserve the Legion as seen from 1958-1987 - when they went back in time, it was to there that they went, not to the past of their own Earth (as seen post-Crisis). In theory, it works, but killing off Superboy wiped out anything with Superman (as you pointed out).

As for believing Byrne here: when he puts it like that, it does sound believable.

7:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved that story, and it was a decent enough continuity patch. Byrne had his new Superman that was never Superboy. The Legion had their Superboy and could still easily fit into post-Crisis Earth as they discover its true history. Plus the Time Trapper becomes insanely powerful. Admittedly, the death of Superboy (as well as the later destruction of that alternate Earth by Byrne in the Superman titles) render all of the Superman/Legion meetings, Batman/Legion, etc., impossible, but there probably is some sort of explanation that could have let those still happen at least from the Legion's perspective. I'm thinking along the lines of what happened in LSH vol.4 85, where the post-Crisis Superman meets the post-Zero Hour Legion for the first time, but he still remembers his encounters with the pre-reboot Legion from the death of Superboy and the Time and Time Again storylines. I don't know Impulse/Bart Allen's continuity, but has DC ever thrown out any explanation how Bart originated pre-ZH, was XS's cousin post-ZH, but outlived that future's end at the Threeboot? If so, could that explanation work in this situation? If not, well, a fair amount of those stories were the Adult Legion, which Levitz wrote out of continuity, and very few if any of the rest could be considered key Legion stories anyway.

Sorry, got a little off topic. All I'm trying to say if that the death of Superboy could have been the end of the problem. Instead, DC decides Superboy could never be mentioned/depicited again, and the Legion's history is shredded, much like Captain Atom, Hawkman, and Superman, despite the fact that DC occassionally backs off this decision so Superboy makes a handful of cameo appearances in flashbacks, confusing everyone even more! AARGH! Even if the TMK Legion had been perfect and didn't have the dual Legions, I still think that the Legion would have eventually been rebooted, simply because, like with Hawkman, the more DC tried to clarify the continuity, the more screwed up it became. I didn't like the idea for a reboot at the time (and I may not have gotten out of comics when I did if they hadn't rebooted), but as I get older, as I reread the issues from Crisis to ZH, I do see the necessity of it, but only because DC couldn't make a final decision on Superboy.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

In my original Legion Continuity Notes post I said that the big temptation here would be to "to try to cover everything in one entry, to drag all the continuity skeletons out of the closet in the first article+comments."

Your comment is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind when I typed that. But, hey, stay tuned; I'll get to it all eventually.

10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post. Very concise summarisation of the whole kerfunkle that was the pocket universe.

I personally think the place where the original legion lost its footing was that they could not bring in superboy ever again. While the storyline in which the kid died was fun, it effectively removed him from circulation and one of the (somewhat rarely at that point, but still) mainstays of the legion was gone.

Also, I HATED the fact that there would be no more unrequited love story with Brainy and Supergirl. That was one of my favourite aspects of the SA Legion.

Finally...can't wait to read the next part. I especially want to see how you explain Valor (I'm sorry...but my mind just goes blank whenever I try to go over THAT mess...)

1:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...


I agree that Superboy is important... but I don't necessarily think he has to be on the team. For me, the important thing is that the Legion's role is that they're Superman's legacy ten centuries down the line, and there should be elements of the team that reflect that. Having Superboy as a Legionnaire is one way to do this, but there are many others too.

As for Valor, he's going to have to wait a little while for a full explanation. But the whole Mon-El/Valor thing is on the shortlist of stuff I want to write about soon.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Reboot said...

> It was meant to be used once and forgotten about, it hasn't existed since Mon-El polished off the Time Trapper back in 1990 (our time), and as far as I can tell there's no good reason for it ever to be mentioned in a comic book again. But it did do what it was meant to do: preserve a) the Legion's past, and b) Byrne's vision of Superman, simultaneously.

You miss the second Superman-related Pocket Universe story, which was VERY important to post-Crisis Superman continuity - where the Matrix Supergirl was introduced, and where Superman killed the three Kryptonian villains (Zod, et al), which led in turn to a lengthy [self-] Exile storyline, which introduced the Eradicator... - and which was why it was reinserted (in a form that made no real difference to the Legion) in Time & Time Again, and was STILL there post-Zero Hour [being referenced as late as 2002-3 - with Action Comics #797 being based almost entirely around that story. Solicit:

Written by Joe Kelly; art by Renato Arlem and Marlo Alquiza; cover by Pascual Ferry

In stores November 27. Superman’s back in therapy, this time trying to come to grips with his execution of the original General Zod in the pocket universe years ago. How will he cope with his fears of doing it again with the new General Zod? Will he be forced to kill again?
32 pages, $2.25

For context, that's the same month as The Legion #14

1:23 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I did in fact miss that; thanks.

I guess it just goes to show you, DC never throws anything away. (Unless it's something that's actually good. Those things can sometimes be thrown away.)

3:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I read the line "The pocket universe was nothing more than one of Paul Levitz's cheap tricks, an apotropaic oojah he beckoned into existence to protect the Legion from the bad mojo of John Byrne's intrusive continuity," I was struck by the thought "Paul Levitz is the Time Trapper!"

A second reading of that same line shows that John Byrne must, therefore, be Mordru (or Glorith, but I'd rather not go there).

1:57 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Except Paul Levitz could never be defeated by an infantile Element Lad turning his rocket into candy and eating it.

8:52 AM  

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