The DC superhero universe as we know it today began three years ago this month, June, in Identity Crisis #1 (August, 2004), by Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales, and Michael Bair. With the violent and gruesome murder of Sue Dibny, wife of Ralph (The Elongated Man) Dibny, something changed in the DCU. It got a whole lot grimmer and grittier. The superhero community began looking hard at itself, bringing to the forefront suspect, impractical and dysfunctional aspects to their claims of heroic purpose. To a great extent they pulled together like never before while challenging each other’s motivations and sense of responsibility. Identity Crisis wasn’t a reboot or revamp (that was still to come), it was basically a murder mystery anchored by a dark secret that set in motion huge ramifications that are being felt to this day. Identity Crisis kind of plopped itself down into the thick of things at that time, and as its story unfolded with mounting intensity month after month it began to overlap with other DCU titles. But not at its beginning. In that month of June, as Ralph’s life abruptly shattered, the DCU was a vast tapestry of grand disparity.

And, yes, it does help being a DC continuity geek to understand the overall picture of a lot of the comics I’ll be discussing. Sorry. But I’ll try to make things easier for you.

Doom Patrol #1, by John Byrne and Doug Hazlewood, on the other hand, was a controversial reboot, revamp and revitalization that threw established DP continuity, something like six incarnations, to the wind. A creative and editorial decision was made to circum-discombobulate all previous renditions of the Doom Patrol and start from scratch as if the DP were congregating in the DC Universe for the very first time. This series, which had its moments once I also threw incredulity to the wind, was one of many continuity-jarring events explained away by Superboy-Prime’s reality-altering punches thrown before and during Infinite Crisis.

Howard Chaykin’s take on the Challengers of the Unknown debuted (#1 of 6). The only tie-in this book had with the DCU was the title. The British Prime Minister’s wife was assassinated, a conservative news organization bashed liberals while tweaking the assassination story, five unlikable Challengers-to-be were introduced, and a ship blew up in Long Beach Harbor (and not because it wanted to). The new Challs were linked by recurring dreams of mass destruction that they shared, but when they started having dreams while wide awake the reader knew a new team, hell-bent on destruction themselves, was about to be born!

Robin, the new girl wonder, teamed up with Cassandra Cain, the no-longer-new Batgirl, to take down the Penguin’s weapons operation in Batgirl #53. This latest incarnation of Robin was previously the costumed crimefighter known as The Spoiler until Tim Drake quit the Robin gig to spend time with his father. Batman appointed Spoiler, rather quickly, as his new sidekick. This is the second or third of Robin’s adventures with the Bat-family, and I was impressed by her in this outing. She had the attitude, motivation and skills to be an excellent Robin, but glory was fleeting as she was about to become another DC death statistic at the beginning of the mega-Bat-crossover, “War Games.” At least her potential shined in this excellent stand-alone story by writer Dylan Horrocks and artists Dave Ross and Jesse Delpardang.

In Green Lantern #178, written by Ron Marz, John Stewart received an unexpected “Dear John” letter (I suppose they’re all unexpected) from his latest romance; Kyle Rayner battled his own personal arch-foe Fatality in another of those long, drawn out conflicts that comic book characters excel at (and which artists Luke Ross and Rodney Ramos illustrated exceptionally well); and that dastardly Major Force got the entire last page to himself!

While it looked like The Joker, given this bizarre cover appearance, was going to play a hefty role in Wonder Woman #205, it was merely an illusion cast by Dr. Psycho. The Amazon Princess had her hands full battling the little runt (I’ve never been a big Dr. Psycho fan, although writer Greg Rucka and artists Drew Johnson and Ray Snyder made him interesting). Meanwhile, Circe made a major enchantment move and allowed the legendary Medusa to enter the fray, with stone-cold results!

So is writer Brian Azzarello and artist Jim Lee’s unique take on Superman, which continued in the June-released Superman #206, now pretty much forgotten? Well, parts of it should be, notably Azzarello’s oft-times annoying habit of stretching whole sentences across panels, and tainting them with ambiguity or multiple meanings that can really jar the reader’s focus (and distracting us from the gorgeous Jim Lee/Scott Williams artwork is not a good thing). But I’m giving Azzarello all the slack in the world because his Dr. 13 storyline, “Architecture and Morality,” that just wrapped up over in Tales of the Unexpected was absolutely freakin’ brilliant. When Azzarello is having fun, as is obvious with his send-up of Dr. 13 and phenomenal work on 100 Bullets, he’s easily one of the best writers in comics. When he appears to be having a dreadful time cooking up interest, as his stint on Superman suggests, the reader feels that uncomfortable weight and shares his pain.

What’s this? Sovereign Seven #27? What has this comic got to do with events of June, 2004? Why, absolutely nothing! This is just a tease for my next column, where I’ll be taking a fond look back at Genesis! That’s right, the DC crossover event of 1997 has reached its 10-year anniversary, and what better time than this summer to take, like I said, a fond look at the bombastic Godwave that first disrupted then threatened to destroy the DC Universe forever? What, you say there’s no good time? Well, everything in life deserves a little perspective, so join me in a month or so and we’ll all groan at the missteps and seek out those Genesis highlights together!

But don’t leave me just yet, because we’ve still got a ways to go with this article.

In The Flash #211, by writer Geoff Johns and artists Howard Porter and Livesay, Wally (the then current Flash) West battled, with the aid of Nightwing, one of the Scarlet Speedster’s most powerful Rogues, Gorilla Grodd. These long-standing Titans did an outstanding job of taking down an always relentless foe. Also, Heat Wave made a cameo appearance and Ashley Zolomon, the new Professor Zoom’s ex-wife, had a horrific car accident that threatened to land Wally into a lot of trouble.

In Batman #629, by writer Judd Winick and artists Dustin Nguyen and Richard Friend, Batman battled a Scarecrow from Hell, and endured a series of intensely frightening hallucinations, including a vision of a resurrected Jason Todd (this sudden fixation with an older, alive Jason Todd — which could be traced back to Loeb and Lee’s stint on Batman — was about to really rock the Dark Knight’s world). Also, the Penguin makes an appearance that apparently had nothing to do with his weapons operation over in Batgirl (a lot of super-villains had multiple agendas, keeping them almost as busy as Superman and Batman). Unfortunately, Robin, though motorcycle master — and still the boy wonder, come to think of it — looked like a hobbit.

In Action Comics #816, by writer Chuck Austen and artists Ivan Reis and Marc Campos, Gog of Kingdom Come fame battled Superman and Superboy in present-day Smallville, Kansas. It was certainly a dramatic, action-packed melee that also involved Kid Flash and Wonder Girl of the Teen Titans. The major problem is Superman’s dialogue. It’s juvenile, better suited for Superboy. Lines like “Oh, man–,” “Whoa, that really hurts,” “Who is this guy?,” and “To think all this time I’ve been worried about Doomsday, and then this loser shows up and kicks my–” are not the kind of battle-induced lines that you would attribute to the Man of Steel, and it distracts from the story. On the other hand, there isn’t much story to be distracted from. Superman was beaten to within an inch of his life, and then Gog simply vanished.

In Green Arrow #39, an army of nine-foot tall demons had imprisoned Star City in an impenetrable dome and proceeded to ravage the city. Only Green Arrow, his band of merry sidekicks, and the combined might of Star City’s police and gangsters were the city’s only hope. Oliver Queen was reluctant to enlist his young friend Mia as a new addition to the arrow-wielding ranks, but she convinced him she was worthy of the role. Together they worked their way to the heart of the enchantment matter, where Mia made the decision to take a life to save the world. Not a bad read at all by writer Judd Winick and artists Phil Hester and Ande Parks, but this is the concluding installment of six parts, so a lot of back-tracking was required to catch up with the storyline.

Ten centuries from now, according to the story in The Legion #34, the anti-matter world of Qward has become a wasteland, but civilization still struggles to survive there. Five members of the Legion have secretly arrived to rescue their captive friend Wildfire, but their presence is soon detected and all-out battle ensues! Excellent story by Keith Champagne, punctuated by sterling art by Steve Lightle. I’m sure this isn’t a stand-alone story, but it sure feels like one.

Carter (Hawkman) Hall’s romance with a Parisian nightclub singer began to seriously blossom in Hawkman #29, by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Ryan Sook, and Mick Gray, and quite possibly a twinge of jealousy was beginning to work its way into the heart of Carter’s partner in crimefighting, Kendra (Hawkgirl) Saunders. Meanwhile, in the skies of St. Roch, a winged killer was on the loose, and to one Hawk-hater on the city police force the main suspect was the Winged Wonder.

In Birds of Prey #68, by Gail Simone, Joe Bennett, and Ruy Jose, the reader was treated to a day in the lives of Black Canary, Oracle, and The Huntress. That also meant some personal time with Dinah Lance, trying to get some mental distance from that Ollie guy; Barbara Gordon, trying to pull a team together; and Helena Bertinelli, sagging in bad reputation and wondering if her life would ever find a good direction. Featuring brilliant cameos by James Gordon and Wonder Woman. There’s even a happy ending, and a respectful nod (in Canary’s corner) to the classic Green Lantern/Green Arrow #86 (1971).

Gotham Knights #54, by A.J. Lieberman, Al Barrionuevo and Javier Pina, continued the extended Hush (the new Batman villain, not the Deep Purple song) storyline that ran through the final third of the title’s run (#50-74). Also in this story, The Joker learned the name of the corrupt cop that was in on the death of his wife and unborn child twelve years before. I believe this was a major tweaking of The Joker’s post-Crisis origin established in 1988’s The Killing Joke. If I recall correctly, The Joker’s wife died under different circumstances before he fell in the vat of chemicals that hideously transformed his skin, not after. The reason for the change was probably to draw some sympathy from the reader, but personally I prefer a Joker motivated by sheer lunacy (a la Detective Comics #475) rather than revenge (with the exception of Batman #251, where as a comeback it worked brilliantly). Still, this was a compelling read, depicting a Batman on the edge of falling apart by personal and criminal events swirling all around him.

In H-E-R-O #17, by Will Pfeifer, Dale Eaglesham, and Wade von Grawbadger, Robby Reed, who utilized the H-E-R-O dial back in the 1960s, and his new pal Jerry, who recently possessed the dial, had set out to confront the current user of the instrument, who just happened to be a deranged serial killer! But it wasn’t long before the killer came after them! As the villain dramatically blasted his way across the city, edging closer to their location, Robby revealed to Jerry that during his spell as Future Boy he saw this and several related events as if they had occurred in the past, and he knew that at this moment, high atop a building, that he and Jerry would confront the serial killer alone, and without a lot of resources to lead them to victory. Doesn’t this play like just plain fun? H-E-R-O should’ve been a sleeper hit but it never quite woke up the comic book masses.

In Aquaman #19, by Will Pfeifer, Patrick Gleason, and Christian Alamy, the secret of the explosion that caused a large portion of San Diego to sink under the Pacific Ocean, also inexplicably giving thousands of surface dwellers the capability to breathe underwater and inhabit ‘Sub Diego,’ was revealed to Aquaman and his new sidekick Lorena. It was neither Black Manta nor Ocean Master nor Lex Luthor behind this nefarious event, but a Dr. Geist, a modern ‘mad’ scientist who sacrificed the lives of many and altered the living conditions of thousands to protect them from the onslaught known as Global Warming. Who said relevancy in comics was passé?

In Superman/Batman #11, by Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner, the Man of Steel, the Dark Knight, Wonder Woman, and Big Barda traveled to Apokolips via Boom Tube to rescue Kara Zor-El, Superman’s new-found cousin from Krypton (retro-conning the Girl of Steel to aspects of her original 1959 origin, with modern fixings), from the villainous clutches of Darkseid. It took me a couple of pages to get used to the battling narration between Superman and Batman, but once I did the comic was a fine read. Turner’s take on Kirby’s Barda is way on the anorexic side, but that’s pretty much how he draws all his women, but again, easy to get used to ’cause the story was so compelling. Still (ah, so many minor gripes as I get older and more jaded in my comics reading), I wonder how Clark Kent is able to find time for his day job as a reporter since he spends so much time as Superman battling threats all over the DCU. Same thought applies to Batman. I mean, one day the Caped Crusader’s being eaten by a giant Apokoliptian death hound, and the next he’s being haunted by a Scarecrow from Hell (see Batman #629).

Before The Exterminators became their ongoing abode, cockroaches infested the cover of Detective Comics #795. What a pretty cover, too, you just wanted to grab it off the stands and peer inside, huh? And once we did, here’s who we had: Tarantula, Orpheus, and Onyx. What did they have in common? They played strong supporting roles in the Bat-titles three years ago. Tarantula (see Nightwing #99) and Orpheus were on hand to aid Batman in a rather convoluted case that involved a smuggling operation, coalescing cockroaches and a slimy creature living in Gotham City’s dank sewer system. In the back-up feature, Batman sent Green Arrow to the monastery where the Emerald Archer spent some time convalescing back in the day (The Flash #218-219, 1972) to bring the mediating Onyx back to ugly civilization to keep an eye on Orpheus. The Bat-family continued to swell to ridiculous proportions. Anderson Gabrych, Pete Woods and Nathan Massengill presented the lead feature, while Gabrych, Brad Walker, and Troy Nixey handled the backup.

Richard Dragon debuted in Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter #1 (May, 1975) to capitalize on the kung-fu craze, which had pretty much run its course at the beginning of 1975. Still, the series lasted two and a half years. Dragon returned in 1986, ragged, weathered, and crippled, to train The Question. Basically a third-to-fourth-tier character, I was surprised when DC decided to resurrect Dragon in his own ongoing monthly, aptly titled Richard Dragon. Chuck Dixon, a writer of action, and artist Scott McDaniel, an illustrator of fast-paced sequences, were terrific on the book, but there was no audience to sustain it. Richard Dragon #2 is set in Nightwing’s turf, Bludhaven, as Dragon and his partner and trainer Ben Turner (the Bronze Tiger) have teamed up to tackle a group of well-honed assassins who have come to town to thwart both law enforcement (notably Barney Ling, who I believed was the villain in the first series) and organized crime (all over the place in Bludhaven, which, in regard to villainy, was kind of a Gotham-lite). Not bad, but a quick read.

Over in Nightwing #94, also set in Bludhaven, Blockbuster had been assassinated, and a prime suspect was Nightwing’s new ‘partner,’ Tarantula, who, if I read this issue right, was seducing a very out-of-it Dick Grayson. There are confusing black and white sequences that overlap with the progression of the story in ‘real-time,’ and I’m not sure if they are hallucinations suffered by Nightwing or flashbacks or altered reality or what. Not having kept up on the series, these portions threw off my understanding of what was actually going on. Special guest super-villain: Copperhead, more reptilian in appearance than ever. By Devin Grayson, Mike Lilly, and Andy Owens.

Of all the women romantically involved with Batman and Bruce Wayne, it’s Catwoman I find the least interesting. Not as a solo character in her own right, but as the Dark Knight’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. I much prefer Silver St. Cloud or Talia al Ghul. I don’t know why, it’s just a relationship that never clicked with me (although I much prefer it to Batman’s fling with Nocturna back in the ’80s). So of course it appears Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle slept together in Catwoman #32, and I’m like “okay.” Fortunately, it’s well written by Ed Brubaker and exquisitely drawn by Sean Phillips and Stefano Gaudiano, so on a creative level I do appreciate the story.

Superman: Birthright #11, by Mark Waid, Leinil F. Yu, and Gerry Alanguilan, was the penultimate issue in the ret-conning of Superman’s origins. So the post-Crisis revamping of Superman by John Byrne published in 1986’s Man of Steel, and slightly tweaked after the events in 1994’s Zero Hour, was now undergoing a major overhaul more in line with, I don’t know, Smallville? Continuity disruption at its zenith, on a level equal with Doom Patrol #1. But in the wake of Infinite Crisis (thank goodness for Superboy-Prime) and 52 (the return of the multiverse, and its divided histories), no longer a big deal. For now.

Robin the Girl Wonder continued to strut her stuff in Robin #127, by Bill Willingham, Damion Scott, and Robert Campanella, and, dang it, I like her, and I know there’s tragedy right around the corner. At the time of this issue’s release I wasn’t too keen on Scott’s artwork, dismissing it as manga-style, manga-esque, manga-whatever; just me being not very appreciative of the manga ‘look.’ But Scott’s diverse work in Solo #10 really caught my eye, spotlighting depths, perspectives and viewpoints I wasn’t allowing myself to see before. So now I’m impressed — and I don’t see it as manga-anything, I see it as illustrations by Damion Scott — and it feels so much better to be that less jaded when reading funny books.

One of the New Teen Titans’ earliest group of foes, The Fearsome Five, returned, with a little help from Dr. Sivana, to plague LexCorp in Outsiders #13, by Judd Winick and Tom Raney. Gizmo looked like a giant bug, Mammoth looked like Rupert of Survivor fame, Psimon had ditched the robe for some classier threads, and Shimmer looked, well, dead (but she got better, thanks to Sivana). If Jinx was with the earlier incarnation, I no longer remember. Nightwing appeared quite coherent, a far cry from the mental instability lavished upon him in his own title.

Meanwhile, over in Teen Titans #12, by Geoff Johns, Mike McKone, and Marlo Alquiza, the new Titans’ furiously battled the new Brother Blood and his minions. A portion of the conflict took place inside the other-worldly dimension known as Raven, which made for a cool visual when she finally got her rational act together and threw everyone out of her cloak. The previously deceased Jericho had also returned, and he proved quite a foe until Cyborg downloaded him onto a computer disc. Ah, modern technology. Also, Deathstroke’s daughter poked her eye out in honor of daddy-kins and hardly felt the pain! Kids these days. Fortunately, Robin did not look like a hobbit, but he was still a boy wonder.

Hal Jordan was still The Spectre back in 2004, and in JSA #62, by Geoff Johns, Tom Mandrake, Don Kramer and Keith Champagne, the former Emerald Crusader fought within himself over what kind of all-powerful ghost he would forever be (“forever” being just a few more months): a wrath of redemption (his then current role) or wrath of vengeance (ala Jim Corrigan). The JSA was also on hand, of course, to battle the Spirit King, the man who had killed the original Mr. Terrific, via the Golden Age Flash, way back in Justice League of America #171 (1979). The new Mr. Terrific, still deeply troubled by the death of his wife in a car accident, found some solace in faith. Actually, the entire story dealt with faith, including Alan Scott’s faith in Hal’s desire to reform and Batman’s faith that Hal was doomed to forever fall back into sin. I’m always impressed by Johns’ knack of instilling different levels of humanity, both positive and flawed, in-between the furious battles.

In The Monolith #5, by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Phil Winslade, a demon had found long-standing sanctuary in a church, and had also been served protection by a successive, albeit reluctant, line of priests. The Monolith, DC’s kinder, gentler answer to the Hulk, had come to the church to smack down the demon. This was a new ongoing comic with untried characters trying to find their voice and footing within a decompressed form of comics storytelling, a form that doesn’t allow for the necessary character development required in a single issue to leave a strong impression. So while it was certainly entertaining fare I didn’t come away caring for anybody (The Monolith is noble and powerful, but he’s also kind of dull). Despite misleading reports of issues selling out at the publisher’s door, The Monolith was done after twelve issues.

So the gentleman with the slightly dim-witted look and hulkish body on this rather oddly-designed cover for Adventures of Superman #629 is indeed the Man of Steel, and the woman with a glint of romance in her eye is a lieutenant with the Metropolis Special Crimes Unit. That glint is serious, mind you, ’cause inside she did have a crush on the Big Blue Boy Scout, who, fortunately, wasn’t dim-witted at all. While Lois Lane was off covering a war in the Middle East, her super-husband remained in Metropolis to battle Xlim, who Superman believed may be the son of Replikon (introduced way back in Green Lantern #108, 1978). Or was this Xlim character actually someone else, someone capable of making the Man of Steel powerless for short periods of time? And who was the mysterious character in the background pulling Xlim’s strings? Intriguing read; personally, the best of the three Superman books published that month (with the weakest cover, go figure). By Greg Rucka, Renato Guedes and Edde Wagner.

In a story arc continuing in the pages of Gotham Central #20, an unsolved ten-year-old multiple murder case involving a high school baseball team was reopened when one of the student survivors killed himself, and it was discovered that the cap he wore was produced by the Mad Hatter. Sgt. Harvey Bullock, who was originally on the case but now disgraced from the Gotham Police Force, was approached by Gotham detectives now tackling the “unresolved” crime. This provided additional tension to an already gripping story. Gotham Central is unquestionably the most adult comic in this batch I’ve been discussing; thoughtful and compelling, it’s not about the action, it’s about telling a damn good story. When I finished reading it and realized I had just been sufficiently intrigued by twenty-two pages of intense conversations, I was even more impressed. This is the comic that made me drop writing this column for a bit so I could read the previous issue to catch up and the next issue to carry on. You don’t have to be a DC continuity junkie to appreciate this series, so not giving this title, which ran 40 issues, a chance is a real crime. By Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark, and Stefano Gaudiano.

In JLA #100, the new Elite (the DCU’s version of Wildstorm’s Authority) had come to Earth to establish themselves as the ruling government! No, it was all a monumental hoax concocted with the JLA to take down the true threat, Mother Earth herself! It wasn’t just a monumental hoax, it was also the set-up for a new JLA maxi-series: JLA Elite! Well, we do expect the 100th issue of a comic book to be something special, and this was actually pretty good. I did have to read it twice through because the story progression kept jumping from “now” to “yesterday” to “now” back to “yesterday” to “now” again and finally to “half a day later” to “the end of the JLA as we know it” and I just plain got confused. But nothing the second read couldn’t sort out. By Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke, and Tom Nguyen.

Surreal and distorted in presentation, Joe Kelly and Ted McKeever’s Enginehead #3 is hard to figure because I should be reading this from beginning to end (six issues in all). While taking place in the DCU (a brief appearance by Superman gives that away) it’s also set apart from then current DCU events. My problem with Enginehead #3 is that the story didn’t really interest me, although I think McKeever’s art is stunning and fits the tone, setting, and characters of the book perfectly. But that disinterest is partly my fault, because this isn’t the kind of book you start with issue 3 (honestly, the majority of the comics discussed in this column you simply can’t start with; while none are inaccessible, there’s a back story to all of them). Enginehead was originally intended for eight issues, and due to poor sales, or poor preorders, was then cut down to six. And once done, forgotten.

Finally — yes, we have reached the end of this column — we have Firestorm #2, by Dan Jolley, ChrisCross and Dan Green. A new Firestorm (the original debuted in December of 1977) was introduced to a new generation of comics readers. Here, the new Nuclear Man began to understand his new powers (after an initial run of big explosions with gusts of fire) and the relationship he had with others who merged with him to help generate those powers.

That was the state of the DC Universe at the time Sue Dibny was murdered in Identity Crisis #1. I am in no state to carry on any further (with anything, except maybe a hearty meal then a nap), let alone try to recall why I even started this endeavor. Something about depth, perspective, disparity, and a three-year anniversary. Four good reasons, I now realize, to enjoy reading and commenting on a big old stack of comic books.