What is now called DC Comics started out as National Allied Publications. It was founded by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in 1934. The first “comic” published was New Fun: The Big Comic Magazine in 1935. The company was quickly known as DC Comics even though that name was not officially adopted until the late 1970s.
Though having 80 plus years of publication history, their publications can be initially broken down into two large sections:
- Pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths (henceforth shortened to Pre-Crisis).
- Post-Crisis on Infinite Earths (also shortened to Post-Crisis).
These two main sections reference the epic maxi series Crisis on Infinite Earths. Its first issue was published in April 1985 and wrapped up in March 1986.
The various “ages” referred in this article refer to the grouping of years that DC was publishing comics. To help explain why Superman (and others) have been active since 1938, the various ages came about as changes were made to the characters for the new generation of readers and how the more human characters such as Batman could still be active decades later.
Pre-Crisis DC Comics is one of the easiest periods to date. It refers to books published by DC Comics before the ending of their maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths (“Crisis”). Then, Crisis removed the various multiple Earths of their publication history and duplicated heroes.
The Golden Age
The Golden Age at DC is usually considered to start with the publication of Action Comics #1 in the Spring of 1938 (cover date June). Howbeit, DC had been publishing books about super heroes for a few years already. (DC’s first superhero was Doctor Occult, who first appeared in 1935).
Many well-known superhero characters first appeared during this time such as Batman, Wonder Woman, Robin, Aquaman & Green Arrow. Other familiar superhero names first appeared during this time such as Green Lantern, Flash & Hawkman. However, these Golden Age versions are usually not as well-known as their Silver Age counterparts.
It was during this time that National Comics absorbed All-American & Detective Comics and became known as DC Comics in 1940. The creation of the Justice Society of America also happened in 1940 (All Star Comics #3). This was the first team up and superhero team book in comics history. This established that the characters that DC was producing existed in the same universe.
The Golden Age started coming to an end in 1946. At this point, many of the superhero comic books were switched over to Westerns, Science Fiction and other genres.
As with many ages of comics, there is no actual agreed upon date. The only DC superhero comics to continue publishing through the 1950s were Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Detective Comics, Batman, Superboy, Superman, Wonder Woman, and World’s Finest Comics. Characters such as Green Arrow & Aquaman were still being shown in backup features during the time between the Golden & Silver ages.
The Silver Age
The Silver Age of DC Comics is usually considered to start with Showcase #4 (1956). It has the first appearance of the Flash (Barry Allen). However, other heroes such as Martian Manhunter/J’onn J’onzz and Captain Comet had already appeared.
After the appearances of these new heroes, DC’s second superhero team was created in 1958. The Legion of Super-Heroes were different from the Justice Society in that the Legion existed 1,000 years in the future in the 30th Century. These heroes time traveled back to the 20th century to induct the hero who had inspired them, and thus Superboy joined the Legion.
The Legion continued to be popular enough to stay in print for the next nearly 50 years.
In 1954, due to pressure from Senate hearings (possibly spurred on by the publication of Seduction of the Innocent, by Fredric Wertham), the Comics Code Authority was created. Comics had been suggested as keys to juvenile delinquency, immorality and criminal behavior. So rather than face governmental oversight the current publishers created the Comics Code to self regulate.
In early 1960, the next superhero team emerged, the Justice League of America. This team also included Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman. But it had the new versions of Green Lantern & Flash along with Silver Age hero Martian Manhunter. More new versions of old characters and new heroes would join including Green Arrow & Hawkman.
In 1961, DC reintroduced the Justice Society in Flash #123. This landmark story stated the Golden Age heroes lived on an alternate earth in a different “vibration rate”. The Golden Age heroes were stated to exist on the misnamed “Earth 2” (which would have actually appeared first chronologically) and the Justice League on Earth 1.
This established the DC Multiverse, leading to the yearly summer team up of the Justice League & Justice Society.
It is hard to give the Silver Age a definitive end date. It slowly gave way to the birth of the Bronze Age. It is usually considered the Silver Age ended in or by the 1970s, but not all sources agree.
The Bronze Age
It is hard to give an actual date or issue where the Bronze Age began. Some consider the drug-related story line of “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 & 86 in 1971 to be a candidate. Others refer to the defection of Jack Kirby to DC Comics from Marvel in 1970, or the murder of Aquaman’s son (known as Aquababy) by his enemy Black Manta in 1977.
The Silver & Bronze age overlap in most points. Most of the characters stayed much the same – but it was the stories that changed. The superheroes started asking questions about and how to tackle issues such as poverty and racism. As the Bronze Age continued, stories started to take a darker tone.
The Comics Code was reduced and the re-introduction of horror comics, largely not seen since the 1950s, happened. This lead to such DC books as House of Secrets and House of Mystery. This period also included the DC Explosion and its fallout, usually referred to the DC Implosion. DC launched many new books that did not do very well and it almost ended the company.
The Bronze Age is usually considered to end in 1985 at DC with the release of Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series that destroyed the DC Multiverse.
Crisis on Infinite Earths (“Crisis”)
The effects of Crisis cannot be over stated. No longer were the Golden Age heroes on an alternate Earth, nor were acquired heroes on different Earths. Heroes such as Captain Marvel (usually referred to as Shazam) and the Charlton characters (Blue Beetle, Peacemaker, Captain Atom, the Question…) that had been acquired by DC had been stated to be located on alternate Earths.
Crisis changed this and moved all characters (acquired or created in house) on to the same Earth. However, some characters that could no longer fit with the continuity were excised.
DC Comics stated they felt that all the various Earths were “confusing” to new readers and they wanted to streamline their universe. It also coincided with DC’s 50th Anniversary. DC also killed off characters such as Supergirl (as they felt Superman had lost his “uniqueness” of being the Last Son of Krypton) and Flash (Barry Allen) (possibly giving a figurative death of the Silver Age) among others.
Characters would be referred as Pre-Crisis or Post-Crisis to differentiate which version was being referred to.
Post Crisis DC Comics (usually shortened to just “Post-Crisis”) can be said to start in March of 1986 after Crisis on Infinite Earths #12 (the final issue) was published. Though, as always, there is debate regarding this. The characters seen in Crisis #12 are different than seen in the comics published just after Crisis #12. This was stated to be some of the effects of Crisis requiring a bit of time to “take hold”.
(In some cases this went for even longer due to editorial confusion. Some writeups.org character profiles that deal with this — such as Fury (Lyta Hall) — call this the “post-Crisis continuity penumbra “.)
Most heroes were given new updated introductions and origins. Some remained similar such as Superman still being sent from Krypton by his parents before Krypton’s destruction. However, the presentation of Krypton, the characterization, appearance and motives of Superman’s parents Jor-El & Lara were wildly different from either of his previous versions.
The Justice Society was stated to have been active in WWII on the new Post Crisis Earth, but the stories and characters were different due to the removal of characters like the Golden Age Batman and Superman. A new phrase was banded about quite often that stories or characters “retroactively never happened/existed”.
Still existing members of the Justice Society were quickly removed from the Post Crisis Earth by being shunted to another dimension. There they would seemingly fight a never ending battle against the Ragnarok of Norse Myth to save all creation.
Other changes included some existing heroes just being reintroduced, these included Wonder Woman, Hawkman & Hawkwoman. Which, in turn, created continuity snarls such as:
- Who helped found the Justice League with the removal of Wonder Woman?
- How could Hawkman & Hawkwoman be just first appearing when they had already been seen in the Post Crisis universe?
- And if Superman had no career as Superboy, then the Legion of Super Heroes is left without an inspiration!
The exact ending of Post-Crisis is another debated topic. Some say it was with the alterations of the Zero Hour event in 1994. Others say it ended with Infinite Crisis 2005 with the return of the Golden Age Superman and others from the pocket dimension they had been imprisoned in since the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
However, DC did not officially reboot their continuity until the New 52 in 2011. (Though unless one is referring to some changes specifically caused by Zero Hour or another reboot of the DC Universe, Post Crisis can refer to any event post issue #12 of Crisis on Infinite Earths.)
Zero Hour was an attempt by DC Comics in 1994 to “clean up” issues with their continuity that had crept up since Crisis. Zero Hour is mostly known now for the debut of the Starman series by James Robinson.
It is considered more of a “soft reboot ” with mostly minor changes to the continuity. Actual changes were very small, changes included Batman no longer being seen as an urban legend but actually known and seen by the citizens of Gotham City. The former Mon-El (then currently Valor) took Superman’s place as the inspiration for the Legion of Superheroes.
As the DC Universe emerged from Zero Hour, the changes actually affected very few books and is usually not referred to as “Post Zero Hour” due to changes.
Infinite Crisis was a 2005 miniseries that revisited many changes created by Crisis on Infinite Earths. The Golden Age Superman, Golden Age Lois Lane-Kent (his wife), Earth Prime Superboy and Earth 3 Alexander Luthor returned from the pocket dimension they were exiled to at the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
While the series did not return the various alternate Earths that were destroyed in Crisis, their existence was acknowledged in DC history. While it restored and acknowledged DC’s history, its overall effect on continuity was minimal.
It restored Superman’s pre-Superman career (though not quite a full blown return of his Pre-Crisis Superboy adventures, he was returned as a member of the Legion of Superheroes), Wonder Woman was returned to founding status in the Justice League.
This was one of the shortest eras of the DC Universe as the entire DC line was affected by Flashpoint.
Flashpoint was a miniseries published by DC Comics in 2011. Barry Allen sets out to save his mother from Professor Zoom and ends up re-booting the DC Universe (again!). The series went on for five issues but had many spin offs. The story ending setup the latest continuity of the DC Universe which became known as “The New 52”.
The New 52
The New 52 (sometimes referred to as Nu52) also started in 2011. This was DC Comics’ second hard reboot/third attempt at starting a new continuity for their multiverse and the heroes that live in it. Again origins changed, costumes were different but some heroes (specifically Batman & Green Lanterns) had their histories be less impacted by this new continuity.
New 52 was intended as a soft reboot of the DC Continuity. Hoping to re-imagine their classic characters to appeal to modern readers, the New 52 first appeared in 2011. Hiring high profile talent such as Grant Morrison and George Pérez for Superman, New 52 was aiming high. However, some creators quickly left stating editorial interference as the main issue. Eventually things settled in and New 52 was going.
However, in 2015 the series Convergence was published while the DC offices moved from New York to Los Angeles. The ending of the Convergence mini series stated that everything DC had published was considered canon. This quickly lead to DC Rebirth which was a return to the Pre-Flashpoint (Post-Crisis) universe.
In one noted point, the New 52 Superman died and was replaced by the Post Crisis Superman whose survival had been revealed as part of Convergence.
In 2016 DC announced they were bringing back some of their previous continuity in Rebirth. As of current writing (April 2017), this is still ongoing.
Appendix #1 – Characters bought by DC
Archie Comics began as MLJ in 1939, before being overtaken by its most famous character. In 1959 Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created The Fly, who joined existing but dormant MLJ characters such as the Shield to form the Mighty Crusaders. After enthusiasm for comic book characters (and camp treatments in particular) faded with the end of the Batman TV show, the books were cancelled.
Archie attempted to relaunch them in 1980, but cancelled them again in 1985. DC licensed the characters for a youth-oriented line named Impact Comics (aka !mpact Comics) in 1991, but cancelled them in 1992. DC licensed the characters again in 2008, but lost the license in 2011.
The Mighty Crusaders were originally the team Alan Moore had in mind for the Watchmen. When they were not available, DC offered him Charlton’s heroes until they realized the characters would all be killed or disabled.
Charlton Comics began in 1944, as a sideline of their extensive music publishing business. Many of their creators were disaffected employees of other companies, such as Steve Ditko, or up-and-coming stars, such as Dick Giordano, Dennis O’Neil, and John Byrne. When Charlton exited the comic book business in 1986, most of its humor titles were purchased by Canadian Roger Broughton.
Its superhero characters, such as Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Judomaster, Peter Cannon… Thunderbolt!, Nightshade, Peacemaker, and the Question, were purchased by DC at the suggestion of Dick Giordano, their Managing Editor. Further adventures of these characters initially took place on Earth-Four (see the next Appendix).
Fawcett Publications began publishing humor magazines as early as 1919. But their most famous character was Captain Marvel, who debuted in 1940. DC immediately began suing Fawcett over allegedly copying Superman. Fawcett eventually threw in the towel in 1953, ceasing publishing comic books and licensing some of their less controversial characters to Charlton.
In 1973 DC purchased the rights to Captain Marvel and related characters like Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel, Junior, placing them on Earth-S. More obscure Fawcett characters were also there – Mister Scarlet and Pinky, Spy-Smasher, Ibis…
Milestone Comics was launched in 1993 by four African-American creators who were dismayed by the under-representation of minorities on mainstream U.S. comic books. It retained control of its characters and licensing, but the books were published and distributed by DC.
Caught by the comic book glut in the mid-1990s, Milestone ceased publishing books in 1997. Its most famous character, Static, continued to appear on television.
In 2008 DC announced that the Milestone characters would appear in the DC Universe, though in practice not much happened. Up until that point, they had been considered a separate Dakotaverse (although there had been crossovers). Other major Milestone characters include Icon and Rocket, or Hardware.
Quality Comics began in 1939, as an extension of their pulp magazine business. Its most successful creation was the Blackhawks. Other characters included Doll Man, Phantom Lady, and Plastic Man.
Quality went out of business in 1956. DC purchasing the trademarks (Quality had never renewed the copyrights), of many characters. But DC only continued four books, including Blackhawk and G.I. Combat).
With later renewed interest in the characters, DC assigned them to Earth-X. Earth-X was a world where the Nazi won World War II. When creators became interested in telling stories without that limitation, another Earth-Quality was created, so these character may appear on either or both.
Appendix #2 – pre-Crisis Earths of import
Here are the main versions of Earth that existed before the Crisis of Infinite Earths, in 1985.
|Earth-1||The “main” version of DC’s Earth as it appears at the dawn of the Silver Age of comics with the new Flash (Barry Allen).|
|Earth-2||The “vintage” version of DC’s Earth, with the Golden Age characters such as Flash (Jay Garrick). It is not the same as the Earth-2 that appears after Flashpoint.|
|Earth-3||A strange “inverted” alternate Earth. See our profiles for the pre-Crisis Crime Syndicate of America for more. There are two versions of Earth-3 – the vintage pre-Crisis one and the later Grant Morrison one.|
|Earth-4||This is where the action heroes DC Comics bought from Charlton Comics (see the previous Appendix) are retroactively considered to live. See our Guide to versions of the Question for a concrete example of how it works.|
|Earth-12||Where the Inferior Five (Awkwardman, Blimp, Dumb Bunny, Merryman, White Feather) live.|
|Earth-86||The original “Great Disaster” post-apocalyptic timeline. See our articles about the Atomic Knights, the original OMAC or Kamandi.|
|Earth-97||Tangent Earth. For explications, see our Joker (Tangent) character profile.|
|Earth-216||The one with the Super-Sons (Superman, Jr. and Batman, Jr.).|
|Earth-Prime||Almost like the real Earth. Almost. See the Superboy of Earth-Prime character profile for more.|
|Earth-Quality and Earth-X||These are two worlds where the Quality Comics characters bought by DC Comics existed. On Earth-X, the Nazis won World War Two.|
|Earth-S||Where the Captain Marvel and other Fawcett Comics characters bought by DC Comics came to live – see above. The “S” stands for “Shazam“.|
|New Earth||The unified version of Earth that results from the Crisis on Infinite Earths.|
Furthermore, two alternate Earths from the early 1990s should be mentioned :
|Earth-247||The version of the Legion of Super-Heroes from the 1994 reboot (with new versions of Saturn Girl or Cosmic Boy, Live Wire, etc.).|
|Earth-Dakota||Where the characters from Milestone Comics bought by DC Comics existed.|
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Helper(s): Helpers: Darci, Sebastien, the Grand Comics Database, William Chamberlin, Wikipedia. One appendix by Darci, another by Sébastien.