Countdown to Crisis Chronology (Part 1 of 3)

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Paul T. Semones

From the Countdown to the epic Crisis itself. From the death of Blue Beetle to the explosion of the Rock of Eternity. Every title. Every issue. Every cross-over within a cross-over. Every week, day and hour. The exploits of every hero and villain. All logged and plotted and untangled to present one continuous, meticulously researched chronology.

At least … that’s my goal.

Presented in three parts this week is the first phase of what I hope to make a recurring feature over the next few months here at SBC as DC Comics continues to unfold their mega-fiction epic, Infinite Crisis. Periodically, this column will provide updates to a downloadable chronology map spanning the entire line of DC comic book titles. The file is a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that maps out titles and issues against a time axis. The benefit of the Excel format is that it allows issue entries to have pop-up notes attached – noting that issue’s key events and any chronological inconsistencies – thus allowing a three-dimensional presentation of information that explains as much why an issue is placed a certain way as where.

For those of you who, like me, treat comic book continuity and chronology research as a fairly serious hobby (or is that an obsession?), it is my hope that this project will be a great benefit to you as both a read-order guide and a subject of good natured debate and speculation. The research conclusions, conjectural interpretations and resolution of inconsistencies are purely my own. Feel free to email me with your disputes.

Blessedly, the massive breadth of activity throughout the DCU during the period investigated actually fits together rather well, which is a testament to the passion, ambition and skill of the dozens of comic creators associated with this most impressive undertaking.

DOWNLOAD THE CHRONOLOGY, VERSION 1

As a first iteration, the current chronology map includes over 100 issues from 18 titles and mini-series. The earliest entries include Dr. Light’s attack on the Teen Titans, just before the events of the Countdown 80-page special; the latest entries take the heroes of the DCU to the cusp of Infinite Crisis #1. It does not include a number of story arcs, in print around the time of the 80-page special, that were not yet substantially contributing to the Crisis build-up. (As examples, the League’s battle with the Crime Syndicate in JLA #107-114, the time-travel story in JSA #68-72, Green Lantern: Rebirth and the period of Wonder Woman’s blindness after her battle with Medousa from Wonder Woman #210 to #217, are all omitted at present.)

Today’s column, the first in a three-part series, presents the chronology file itself and a short history, summarizing – in sequence – all the dramatic events that carried the characters of the DC Universe from Identity Crisis to Infinite Crisis. Today’s column also includes a general explanation of how the chronology was built.

Tomorrow, in the second part of the series, I tackle the details, explain a number of crucial gaps that have been inserted in the chronology, and address some of the difficulties that force certain time references to be ignored.

Later this week, the series concludes with a detailed discussion of several problems that prevented some key issues and mini-series from being definitively placed, including the problems involved in placing the war on Rann into the chronology, inconsistencies within the Superman titles, and the mind-numbing paradox of Nightwing. Also explored is the final Sunday/Monday of the timeline, when all hell breaks loose and the Crisis begins.

So, download the chronology, sit back with a tall beverage, and settle in. There’s a lot that needs to be explained …

(Beware: the rest of this column will be, inescapably, SPOILER-HEAVY.)


A Brief History of Time, Crisis to Crisis


The murder of Sue Dibney, wife of Elongated Man, triggered a massive upheaval in the status quo of the DC Universe in the summer of this fateful year – as portrayed in the miniseries Identity Crisis. The investigation of her murder revealed the dark secret that, years ago, the original roster of the Justice League had decided to drastically alter the minds of several villains, including, most prominently, Dr. Light.

The revelation saddled the heroes with a deep mistrust of one another, and prompted the villains of the DCU to band together to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. The immediate fallout of Sue Dibney’s murder led to an epochal series of battles which left the original Firestorm, Ronnie Raymond, dead. Jack Drake, father of the current Robin, and long-time villain Captain Boomerang were also killed.

Simultaneously with this upheaval within the metahuman community, Gotham City suffered three of the worst days in its history since a devastating earthquake had turned the city into a No Man’s Land. The violence of those days was recorded in “War Games,” a three-month crossover involving 10 of the Batman-centric titles. During those three days of gang warfare, Batman and his allies were rocked by still more death and betrayal, as well as the disintegration of their relationship with the city as trusted protectors.

Spoiler, Robin’s girlfriend, died during “War Games” just days before Robin’s father was killed in Identity Crisis. Batman, who was already reeling from his realization that the old Justice League had also altered his own mind, would eventually learn that his trusted associate Leslie Thompkins deliberately let the young hero die. Ultimately, Robin and Batgirl left Gotham City for Bludhaven, and Nightwing – the original Robin – seemed ready to quit the hero life altogether.

Soon after the end of the Gotham gang wars, the murder of Sue Dibney was solved, leaving the heroes with still more grief. She had been killed by one of their own, the Atom’s ex-wife, Jean Loring. Atom disappeared, Elongated Man retreated into mourning, and the heroes attempted to move on.

Batman, however, grew ever more withdrawn, soldiering on as a solitary – and now explicitly outlawed – protector of Gotham. The Bat-signal was dismantled, by order of G.C.P.D. commissioner Akins (Gotham Central #25).

In the weeks to come, Green Lantern Hal Jordan came back to life, Wonder Woman was blinded, Superman faced a villain named Ruin who relentlessly targeted his loved ones, and a new Firestorm, Jason Rusch, unexpectedly emerged in Detroit.

Less than a month after the summer’s tragedies in the hero community, Dr. Light struck out against the Teen Titans with unexpected ferocity. The attack would be a mere prelude to weeks of escalating threats from several different quarters (“Lights Out,” Teen Titans #21-23).

In the next few days, Blue Beetle and Oracle uncovered evidence of a conspiracy against the meta-human community led by former ally Maxwell Lord. A large quantity of Kryptonite was stolen from a Kord Industries warehouse in Chicago. Batman had just learned Kord – Blue Beetle’s company, and a subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises – had been seized in a hostile takeover and Bruce Wayne himself ousted from its board (Countdown; Batman #635).

That week, the Kryptonite turned up in Gotham, where Batman (and Nightwing, apparently not yet ready to ditch the superhero business entirely) encountered a new figure: Red Hood. Batman would eventually learn the new Red Hood was in fact a mysteriously resurrected Jason Todd – the second youth to wear the Robin costume until his death years ago (Batman #635-638, 641).

Around this time, the magical forces of the DCU came under the combined assault of Spectre and Eclipso, now possessing the woman who had murdered Sue Dibney that summer: Jean Loring. Spectre and Eclipso began a rampage of destruction through the mystical realms, and one of their early targets was the nation of Khandaq. The country was ruled by Teth Adam, who happened to be one of the core members of the growing society of villains. The JSA halted Spectre and Eclipso’s attack there, but Spectre’s mission of annihilation continued throughout the occult realms for the next several weeks (JSA #73-75).

Blue Beetle, in the meantime, had received little support from his fellow heroes in investigating the intrigue within his company. Days after his Chicago warehouse had been ransacked, he was dead, murdered by Maxwell Lord for discovering Lord’s plans as Black King of the organization Checkmate (Countdown).

Seeing that his plans were close to being uncovered by Blue Beetle’s allies, Lord activated a metahuman annihilation program called the OMAC Project, a decades-long scheme of converting unsuspecting citizens into cybernetic soldiers. OMAC units – transformed from living hosts – began an intermittent plan of scouring the globe to kill metahumans, though their activities seemed fairly haphazard at first. Superman would be the first hero to go head-to-head with these OMAC units in the next few days (The OMAC Project #1, Superman #217, Adventures of Superman #641.)

Before the heroes found any evidence of Blue Beetle’s death or an explanation for the appearance of the cybernetic soldiers, Superman’s stalwart nemeses Lex Luthor and Brainiac triggered a terrible attack on the Teen Titans and Outsiders from within. Superboy was coerced to fight against his teammates, and the android Indigo was subsumed under Brainiac’s control to attack her teammates on the Outsiders. Indigo was destroyed by her own lover, teammate Shift, and Superboy chose to exile himself in the aftermath. If nothing else, the attack further polluted what was once an atmosphere of trust among the world’s heroes (“Insiders,” Teen Titans #24-25, Outsiders #24-25).

Within a few days, that trust was irrevocably shattered.

Batman had received evidence of Blue Beetle’s death, and revealed to Superman and Wonder Woman – and Beetle’s best friend Booster Gold – that Maxwell Lord, a former ally, was now in control of a powerful satellite called Brother I that Batman had created to surveil the Justice League. As if that weren’t enough to open an everlasting rift between the trinity of heroes, Lord activated something else he had been developing for years: a malevolent telepathic control of Superman himself (The OMAC Project #2-3).

Lord forced Superman to brutally beat Batman, and when members of the Justice League confronted Superman, the Man of Steel was coerced again to fight the League and unleash a ferocious attack on Wonder Woman. In a moment of shocking decisiveness, Wonder Woman killed Maxwell Lord to prevent him from ever controlling Superman again (“Sacrifice,” Superman #219, Action Comics #829, Adventures of Superman #643, Wonder Woman #219).

Within hours, Brother I – now under sentient protocols – initiated a worldwide activation of more than one million OMACs. A handful of Teen Titans fought off a horde of OMACs on Alcatraz, while Robin and a number of unlikely allies – both magical and military – defended Bludhaven from their assault. Under the direction of Batman, and led by Wonder Woman and Green Lanterns John Stewart and Guy Gardner, an army of heroes simultaneously staged an epic battle in the Libyan desert and successfully eliminated a substantial percentage of the OMAC units, saving most of the innocent human hosts within. Brother I – or Brother Eye, as it now called itself – was temporarily set back in its goals, but it still controlled hundreds of thousands of OMAC units. A contingency plan to turn world opinion against all heroes would soon be set in motion (The OMAC Project #4-6, Robin #143-145).

Elsewhere, from a hidden base in the Gotham City area, a growing society of villains had been putting pieces into place to capitalize on the chaos within the superhero community and crush them as any sort of creditable fighting force forever. The society was apparently led by an executive-minded Lex Luthor, though a few would soon discover that this Luthor was not one native to this universe.

Despite the crushing momentum of events against the League and their allies, a ray of hope dawned days after the battle in Libya with the return of Donna Troy from her presumed death. The Green Lantern Corps was also reforming, though interstellar warfare far from Earth cast a pall over these uplifting events. And soon, both Donna Troy and the enigmatic Power Girl gained glimpses of an astonishing truth – that once, there existed an infinite array of parallel worlds.

And from one of those long lost alternate worlds, an alternate Luthor had entered this reality.

That alternate Luthor’s society of villains had numerous schemes in motion, one of which involved the capture of the new Firestorm, whose energy would be used to power some nefarious apparatus. Another scheme centered on a new figure known only as Breach and a plan involving gestation vats filled with an unknown breed of creature. Still another plan would have used Mr. Freeze in an effort to hijack the global economy by freezing the world’s reservoirs of unexploited crude oil, but this plan was derailed through the involvement of the current Batgirl (Villains United #4, Firestorm #16-17, Breach series, Batgirl #68-70).

Despite the array of looming threats, the Justice League was in the final stages of complete collapse. A week after Wonder Woman’s harsh killing of Maxwell Lord, Flash sought to clear the air of mistrust and invited a number of Leaguers to the team’s Watchtower on the Moon to advise them that, if they did not confess to Batman that they had manipulated his mind years before, he would.

Unfortunately, members of the original Secret Society of Super-Villains chose this day to attack the team. Years before, these six villains had discovered the identities of the Justice League and all their loved ones. Zatanna and the League had altered the villains’ minds to remove that knowledge, and now, the monstrous telepath Despero had restored that knowledge and set them on a path of murder.

The conflict between the League and these restored villains covered two days, and though the six were dispatched easily enough after an attack on the Daily Planet building, Despero succeeded in seizing the minds of the Justice League and setting them upon one another, with Wayne Manor as the battlefield. Through Zatanna’s magical intervention, the threat was averted (JLA #115-119).

But the damage was done. In the space of a week, all of the world’s greatest heroes had inflicted horrible punishment upon one another under mental coersion – first Superman against Batman and Wonder Woman, and now Batman and the rest of the old League against each other. And the solution to this latest threat, Zatanna’s mental manipulations, was precisely the same solution that had apparently triggered all of the recent heartbreak so many years ago.

The League went their separate ways, more bitterly divided than ever.

Less than two weeks later, over the course of two fateful days, all hell broke loose.

Spectre and Captain Marvel clashed over Budapest, Hungary, almost leveling the city. Spectre was pushed back for a day by the combined magics of hundreds of surviving occult adepts, channelled through the Enchantress. She was herself defended from the Spectre’s partner Eclipso by her new teammates, the Shadowpact. It was not enough, however, to prevent the Spectre from gaining victory a day later.

After recovering his strength, Spectre invaded the Rock of Eternity, seat of the Wizard Shazam, and destroyed it. The Shadowpact had gained a small victory in banishing poor Jean Loring, host of Eclipso, into the sun. But the Wizard was killed and the Rock of Eternity’s explosion manifested with horrible consequence over Gotham City, unleashing the demon personae of the seven deadly sins (Day of Vengeance mini-series).

The Brother Eye satellite unveiled its final gambit to destroy the world’s trust in its metahuman protectors by hijacking all television signals on the planet and playing, in grizzly detail, the videotaped footage of Wonder Woman breaking Maxwell Lord’s neck (The OMAC Project #6).

A partner of the alternate Luthor captured J’onn J’onzz and destroyed the Watchtower (JLA #119).

And Hawkman and Hawkgirl, who had left earth with Adam Strange to defend the planet Rann from invasion after the battle with Despero, witnessed an incomprehensibly vast rift open in space, threatening to swallow worlds and reshape the geography of the universe (The Rann/Thanagar War mini-series).

Barely two months since the shocking murder of Sue Dibney had been solved, a crisis of truly infinite proportions had arrived.


Building a Chronology

Comic books are strange beasts. The flow of time within the stories is central to their popularity, since they are, after all, traditionally works of serialized fiction. What came before matters to what will come later, and what makes a juicy villain so cool is that, sooner or later, he’ll come back to get his vengeance. So it’s hard to imagine that any comic book fan could honestly be completely uninterested in continuity timelines and the like.

But the nature of the monthly periodical format makes for some head-scratching conundrums. Sometimes, an entire six-month run takes place, by internal reckoning, in just a single day, no matter how epic it feels. Flash #220-225, “Rogue War,” is one recent example. Other times, a single issue will have gaps of days or weeks from one page to the next.

All of this makes for ample opportunity for chronological mistakes between titles in a shared comic universe, once all the issues are lying on the table in front of you and able to be compared. It is all too easy for continuity obsessed fans (like me) to shake our fists at “careless” writers and take to the message boards to spew some hate at the very creators who make our Wednesdays so much fun.

It’s important to remember that, probably most of the time, scripts for the latter part of a multi-issue arc aren’t fully written until the early issues of that arc have already been bagged, boarded and sorted in a long box in your bedroom. And so, two arcs on separate titles, which on balance are seen to be sequential – even though they hit the stands concurrently – may have inconsistencies in their early issues that leave the timeline from one to the other looking rather like a moebius strip.

The six-month publishing period between the Countdown 80-page special and Infinite Crisis #1 has a few such conundrums … but honestly, far fewer than we might have expected, given the gargantuan reach of DC’s array of titles (close to 40 involved, to some degree).

One such conundrum is between the 10-issue OMAC Project/”Sacrifice” run, and the concurrently published “Crisis of Conscience” storyline in JLA #115-119. By the end of both stories, it’s clear that the JLA run must occur chronologically after OMAC. Yet one of the central points of “Crisis of Conscience” is that Martian Manhunter is not aware of the JLA’s decision to mindwipe Batman years ago, even though during the “Sacrifice” detour between OMAC Project #3 and #4, the Justice Leaguers obliquely refer to it in his presence. Both facts are structurally and thematically important to their respective stories, but they are inescapably out of sequence. Plus, Firefly shows up in JLA #115, even though he was killed in OMAC Project #6. The kicker? Firefly showed up in JLA three publishing months before the issue of his death in OMAC hit the stands.

In other words, when establishing a chronology, things never work out perfectly. Inconsistencies must be noted, minor sequences must be ignored, and occasionally, entire runs must be cordoned off as apocryphal. Thus, what chronology researchers may hope to nail down as “fact” must, ultimately, be viewed as merely highly-annotated interpretation.

Dependency vs. Calendar Placement

This project intends to go beyond a mere dependency chronology, in which issues are placed in a raw sequence that simply says which things must come after others.

I have attempted to go well beyond that basic organizational level to establish the number of days and weeks between issues or portions of issues. Really, there was no other choice for working in the Countdown timeframe, since primary characters such as Batman and Superman appear in so many titles in any given month. Gaps between events in a single issue must be exploited as freely as possible to fit in appearances in other books. The OMAC Project #1 is the most glaring example of this in the current work. Near the end of the issue, Sasha Bordeaux mails a package containing Blue Beetle’s shattered goggles to Bruce Wayne – from Paris. The package arrives in the space of a single panel, but placing a couple days in that gap proves absolutely essential to making sense of events in other titles. (In fact, I have located 14 issues of Adventures of Superman, Birds of Prey, Outsiders and Teen Titans in that shipping-time gap).

Now, let’s get down to the specifics of the present work. (I recommend you open the chronology file and refer to it as this explanation unfolds.)

The Backbone

Even though the Countdown period consisted of six publishing months between the 80-page special (cover dated May ’05) and Infinite Crisis #1 (cov. Dec. ’05), and even though the four primary mini-series all ostensibly spun more or less immediately out of Countdown’s events, those four minis were by no means concurrent within the DCU.

The OMAC Project picked up immediately after the close of Countdown, and thus forms the backbone of the early phase of the period’s timeline. OMAC covers only about a week after the death of Blue Beetle, not counting its final page, when Brother Eye broadcasts the footage of Wonder Woman killing Maxwell Lord (see “The Gap Theory” in tomorrow’s column).

Day of Vengeance covers only two days, and ends during the cataclysmic Sunday/Monday timeframe that marks the opening of Infinite Crisis itself (see “Sunday, Bloody Monday” in Part 3 of this series later this week). Villains United does not clearly define a timeframe through most of its run, and thus is open to plenty of arbitrary stretching, as necessary. And The Rann/Thanagar War is, chronologically, just plain trouble (see “Wars and Rumors of Wars” in Part 3).

Still, I have been able to establish the total time between Chapter 1 of the Countdown 80-page special and the opening of Infinite Crisis as almost exactly four weeks, to the day. To do this, a handful of “X weeks later” references in several specific issues have had to be designated as inaccurate, as will be explained in tomorrow’s column.

A handful of other references – most of which are far more structurally significant than the ones ignored – combine to establish the four weeks conclusion, and these will be explained momentarily. Most of them build out of events in Teen Titans, which frequently offered day and time captions to locate the team’s adventures on weekends. And since Teen Titans is written by Geoff Johns, one of the three primary architects of the Countdown timeframe (along with Greg Rucka and Judd Winick) and the author of Infinite Crisis itself, I have chosen to treat him as an overriding authority in all but a few cases.

(Conveniently, Teen Titans #20 also provides a touchstone for locating “War Games”, and thus the middle part of Identity Crisis, three to four weeks before Countdown Chapter 1, although this figure may be revised if I ever work backwards to Identity Crisis more comprehensively.)

In establishing the four weeks figure, we have the following data points, in logic order:

*The four-part “Insiders” arc in Outsiders #24/25 and Teen Titans #24/25 is noted as occurring on a Saturday.
*The “Sacrifice” interlude between OMAC #3 and #4 establishes “Insiders” as three days previous, placing the death of Maxwell Lord on a Tuesday.
*Working backward through OMAC #1-3 and the 80-page special, Chapter 1 of Countdown is probably on a Saturday, a week before “Insiders.” (This requires two assumed gaps, as explained in “The Gap Theory” tomorrow.)
*The next point is a bit tenuous: JLA #118, the fourth part of “Crisis of Conscience” and the second day of that arc, suggests obliquely that Wonder Woman killed Maxwell Lord about a week ago.
*More tenuous still, JLA #117 (on the same day as JLA #118) includes a newsroom reference to the kidnapping of Firestorm, thus allowing Firestorm #16-18 to fit in this same week.
*In Firestorm #19, Jason joins Donna Troy’s team of spacefarers in the Sunday/Monday timeframe surrounding Infinite Crisis #1, and comments that Firestorm #18 was a week ago.

Taken together, these references form the backbone of the whole chronology for the period.

Click here for Part 2 and here for Part 3.

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