When I was a kid, I used to have all the action figures to my favorite TV shows. I had all the Ghostbusters, all the Ninja Turtles, a whole box full of He-Mans, and some Transformers, in addition to some other generic action figures that I can't remember. I also had a sandbox and a playroom, and these were the places where crossovers happened. Ninja Turtles could hit ghosts and hurt them whenever it suited me, and proton beams could stop Skeletor if the occasion called for it. Oh, and they could fly. All of them could fly. Rules did not apply to action figures and imagination.
Nor do they apply, it seems, to DC's Convergence mashup. We're still pretty early into the series, and plot has yet to really take shape, but by issue 2, we have different Supermans fighting each other out in a desert landscape that isn't unlike a child's sandbox. In fact, Brainiac's whole mission is to make all the different versions of DC's superheroes fight each other on his giant sandbox world. I'm serious. That's the premise. Why? Because DC needs to reset something. What they are going to fix in this latest cleanup story I have yet to determine. Convergence, like Flashpoint, Infinite Crisis, Crisis on Infinite Earths, or Zero Hour, serves the same purpose as all the others: continuity enema.
It's not that it's necessarily a bad thing to reboot characters from time to time, because comic books need to return to a point of origin every so often in order to continue telling fresh stories, but there has to be a better way than this. DC boasts its multiple reality setup as one of its strengths, and it does provide some benefits, like giving creators freedom to explore ideas that wouldn't be acceptable in regular continuity (All-Star Superman springs to mind). We can also re-imagine different versions of the characters that might offer us something fresh and interesting. However, it has a few drawbacks. For one, it becomes very confusing. There are too many "regular" versions of the heroes that we have to keep track of, such as pre-crisis/post-crisis Superman or pre-Flashpoint/New 52 Batman. It also dilutes the potency of the heroes when there are so many versions of them. For example, if a New 52 hero dies, there are still at least 7 other versions of that character that are part of "normal" continuity.
These reboots sometimes also reflect internal discord amongst the editorial staff at DC. The brass doesn't always see eye-to-eye with one another, so we get stories and characters that feel like they're pulled in two different directions. Usually the effect is that each new story arc gives the reader the feeling of walking into a movie 15 minutes in. There are sometimes events that have happened that are never shown, only alluded to, like Lex Luthor designing his own prison.
This is not to say that all of the New 52 has been crummy. In fact, some creators have turned out their best work in a long time, like the Court of Owls storyline, or the entirety of the Flash series up to now that has been interesting and visually gorgeous beyond words. But I've held the New 52 lightly because I don't trust DC to keep anything for long. I kept thinking, "This looks cool, and it's interesting. DC will never stand for that. Time for a reboot!" And here we are at the Convergence. Whenver DC starts something over, they reboot the whole damn thing because it's all connected. Is there a way to reset characters when necessary without shaking up the whole universe every time?
There might be. If DC adopted an unfixed timeline approach, each character's respective book could retain the flexibility to reset while still offering creators the freedom to push boundaries and tell stories that are relevant and meaningful. What do I mean by "unfixed timeline"? Allow me to use a few illustrations. Ever watch Batman the Animated Series? How about Superman the Animated Series? Both of those cartoons used unfixed timelines to tell their stories. That is, unless it was a two-part episode, one episode did not necessarily lead into the next. We had conditions, such as Superman working at the Daily Planet and being secretly in love with Lois, friends with Jimmy, and enemies with Lex Luthor. Those conditions never changed, and we just kept telling stories in that particular "era" of Superman's life.
"But it gets boring if nothing changes," you might argue, and I would agree. There needs to be progress. Superman's relationship with Lois needs to change, either they get married or Lois tells Clark to drop dead and then runs off and marries Lex Luthor – whatever as long as there is change with consequences. If Jimmy Olsen reveals he's gay and tries to kiss Clark, that tension needs to remain the next time Clark runs into Jimmy. "But," you will argue, "Then we have a fixed timeline." Correct. If something that happens in one story leads to consequences that carry over into another story, then those events are fixed on a timeline and will remain in place until DC's next continuity reboot.
Here's how we can wed the two ideas: twelve-issue story arcs on an unfixed timeline. DC hires a creative team for their books, and those teams get 12 issues to tell the best damn stories they can, with lasting consequences and serious problems, but each story must be wrapped up in 12 issues. At the end of issue 12, we get a "The End", and the next issue features a new creative team returning to the preset conditions (working at the Planet, secretly in love with Lois, friends with Jimmy, enemies with Lex) and starting a whole new story. They would NOT have to create a mechanism within the story that negates cause and effect. I.e., each 12 issue maxi-series doesn't need to always end with some strange time-warp that reboots the characters – that's because the timeline is unfixed. We just get to the end of the story, say "The End", and start over. It will be an understood agreement between DC and its readers.
This will create freedom for creators to tell the kinds of stories that they might not normally get away with. Have Batman (or someone) kill the Joker! Have Batman take over the world the way Superman did in Injustice! Have the Green Lantern Corps become an occupying military force on Earth! Have the Flash outrun death! It would be okay to explore all of these ideas in regular continuity with lasting consequences (within their 12 issues) because it would reset back to the origin point after a year.
Now some of you might think this is even worse than how DC is doing things already. After all, isn't the problem that DC reboots too much? If we increase this to a reboot for each character every year, then it'll never end! How will characters ever develop beyond a certain point if it always snaps back to the same conditions over and over? The best stories evolve over time, don't they? This brings me to my next illustration, and the second part of my evil scheme. Ever read Conan the Barbarian?
Dark Horse has been working with the character for a few years now, and what they've done is tried to tack down all of Robert E. Howard's Conan tales onto a fixed timeline. They've had to group the original stories into different "eras" of Conan's life. Howard never created a fixed timeline. He decided that Conan would one day be king of Aquilonia, but that's as far as it went. He told stories of Conan as a pirate, a marauder, a thief, a mercenary, and all kinds of stages in Conan's development. What this did was provide Howard the flexibility to tell pretty much any story he wanted in any setting, with any circumstances. Conan's past rarely came into play as part of the background to a tale, unless it was immediately relevant to the story (for instance, if he's been hunting a character for revenge or pursuing a woman that he's fixated on). Granted, the fact that he always moves around makes this easier to achieve. Superheroes remain fixed in one city, so they often interact with the same supporting characters over and over, unlike Conan who meets some people, kills some people, and then moves on to a new area.
Still, we could break the careers of superheroes into stages. For instance, we know there is a period in Superman's life in which his identity is a secret to everyone except Batman, and there is a period in which Lois, Jimmy, and maybe a few others know who he is. He may be dating Lois in this stage, he may just be close friends, but either way, it's a different period. Perhaps we could use some of his greatest stories as milestones. We could have pre/post Doomsday periods, or pre/post President Luthor periods. DC's editors would have to decide what those stages would be. That way, after each 12-issue run is finished, a new creator can pick up with any period of a character's development they like and probe deeply into a hero's lifespan to mine the best stories. Maybe one creator likes what another one did a couple years earlier and decides to pick up where the first guy left off and continue the tale. Sky's the limit.
I know this idea won't jive with some people. Marvel has never had to do anything like this, but they still keep things fresh(ish). And then there are some characters, like Savage Dragon, that continue to march on, never rebooting, but always resetting. Stories have consequences, and unfortunately for DC, there are more consequences for the writers than there are for the characters because muddled timelines are kryptonite to writers. This method might provide a way for the writers to escape the consequences of wanting to try something new. If a story doesn't work out, it will eventually end, and they can try something different. They won't have to reboot the whole universe and affect other characters who are more successful. And if a story does work, then the next creative team to pick up the book could extend that story arc for another year. It would be a better way for DC to fix broken story lines than getting ALL of their action figures out of the box and making them duke it out to distract us from their repair work.