20 August 2014

The Syncretism of DC Comics

In religion, the term syncretism refers to the amalgamation of different religious traditions, or possibly the absorption of one faith’s traditions into another. It’s how, for example, the mythology of Greek gods expanded to incorporate other cultures’ deities, either as aspects of that established pantheon or as new members of it.

Some of the pagan traditions that early Christianity syncretically absorbed in its spread across Europe still define how we celebrate Easter and Christmas. Christian missionaries tended to build churches on ground that previous religions already considered sacred, which is why we have the French locale of Saint-Michel-Mont-Mercure (Saint Michael/Mount Mercury) and an English cathedral right beside the hot springs at Bath.

Of the two major US publishers of superhero comics, Marvel has resisted syncretism but DC has grown through it. In nearly every decade since it was founded, DC has absorbed a publishing competitor, not just taking over its past publications but eventually bringing its characters into the “DC Universe.”

Indeed, this pattern was built into the company’s operations soon after it introduced the first comics superhero, Superman. What we now call “Golden Age DC” consisted of three comics companies with overlapping ownership: National Allied Publications, Detective Comics, and and All-American Publications. The last operated out of separate offices, but in mid-1940 its heroes started appearing alongside some of the other companies’ in All Star Comics. In 1946 National/DC bought out All-American, obtaining complete ownership of the Flash, Wonder Woman, the Spectre, the Sandman, Hawkman, and other trademarks.

Superhero stories went into a decline in the following decade, but DC was able to maintain sales of Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, and a few backup characters. Other companies stopped publishing in the genre, or publishing altogether. In some cases, DC stepped in to buy their trademarks.

Eventually, superhero stories became popular again, along with the idea that all of a company’s heroes operated in the same universe and could meet, fight, and then go after common foes. In 1961 editor Julius Schwartz and writer Gardner Fox created parallel universes, which gave DC room for all the heroes it had accumulated over the years.

At first DC editors confined each parent company’s legacy mostly to one version of Earth. Thus, Fawcett Comics’s Captain Marvel and his family and villains were on Earth-S or Earth-5; Quality Comics’s Freedom Fighters were on Earth-X. But then the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries of 1985-86 ended with all those different realities being amalgamated into one common history and reality—full syncretism at last!

Here’s DC’s acquisition timeline and how it incorporated its new intellectual properties:
  • Quality Comics acquired 1956, Blackhawk kept in publication, Plastic Man syncretized in 1966, Quality’s other superheroes syncretized in 1973.
  • Fawcett Comics’s Captain Marvel and family licensed and syncretized in 1972, acquired outright in 1991.
  • Charlton Comics’s “action heroes” acquired in 1983, syncretized in 1986.
  • Milestone Comics partnered from its start in 1993, Static and others syncretized starting in 2009.
  • Wildstorm Comics acquired in 1999, some characters syncretized in 2011.
In 2006 DC tried splitting up its heroes into separate universes again, with fifty-two realities promised (though not all explored). The “New 52” of 2011 cut back on that scheme, but there are at least a handful of alternate universes in the company’s comics today, and since characters can (with effort) cross over, it’s all one reality.

TOMORROW: The problems with superhero syncretism.

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