Hegelian Sublation, Comic Book Continuity, and DC Rebirth
By Matthew William Brake
Comic book continuity is a difficult topic to write on, to say nothing of Hegel. Both require an oversimplification in order to explain them to a newcomer, which often requires clarity at the loss of nuance.
To begin, let’s briefly look at Marvel Comics. Dozens of writers have taken their turn writing for Iron Man. Each take on Iron Man is different, and they all either drop or sustain previous understandings of the character. But the latest version of Iron Man contains all of the previous versions of the character, though certain elements have been dropped. This is a process Hegel calls “sublation” or “supersession,” which involves at the same time “a negating and a preserving” of what came before (68).
Now let’s look at Marvel’s continuity as a whole. For the most part, it has been fairly continuous. Then came Secret Wars in 2015/2016 that redrew the main, “616” Marvel Universe. Additionally, the Ultimate Marvel Universe—a brand launched in the early 2000s to provide a modern take on Marvel’s characters in order to be more accessible for new readers—came to an end with all but a few of its most popular characters preserved within the new status quo. Elements of both universes were sublated, with some elements being dropped while others were preserved in its new form. According to Marvel’s Vice President of Publishing, Tom Brevoort, Secret Wars meant the end of the Marvel multiverse as we knew it, but Editor-in-Chief Alex Alonso makes clears that it wasn’t a reboot, saying, “Our history is not broken….If anything we’re trying to build upon it” (Rivera). This is sublation.
The nature of the DC Comics Universe provides an even more stark example of sublation. One could say that sublation is a regular part of the nature of the DC Comics Universe.
Ever since the landmark Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover in 1985, DC has tended to adjust the entire continuity of their universe every 10 years or so. Crisis on Infinite Earths brought an effective end to the DC multiverse, a plot device used to explain the disparities between Batman and Superman adventures from the Golden Age of Comics (1938-1950s) and those from the Silver Age (1956-1970) as well as why multiple versions of a character (such as the Flash) could exist at the same time. The multiverse explained that Jay Garrick, the Flash of the Golden Age, was really from Earth-2, while Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, was from Earth-1. Also, characters from companies absorbed by DC, such as Fawcett (Captain Marvel), Quality (Plastic Man), and Charlton (Blue Beetle), were located on different Earths (Earths X, S, and 4, respectively).
By the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths, an infinite number of earths had been reduced to just one, dubbed “New Earth,” on which was preserved both the Golden Age and Silver Age characters as well as the other companies’ characters, their histories having been altered to reflect only one timeline.
But this wasn’t the last sublation that the DC Universe would experience.
Having simplified their history, DC relaunched all of their characters, giving them new streamlined histories. This allowed them to build an all-new continuity from scratch without needing to juggle multiple earths; however, this process produced its own contradictions, particularly regarding DC’s various future timelines. Zero Hour: Crisis in Time! was meant to fix these issues.
Zero Hour likewise created its own continuity problems, ultimately resulting in the 2005 Infinite Crisis event, which recreated the multiverse in the form of 52 alternative worlds.
This “middle crisis” was then followed by Final Crisis, which saw the return of Barry Allen as the Flash (who died during the first crisis).
In 2011, DC decided to yet again reboot their line to increase sales with their Flashpoint event, a Flash-centric story that saw the DC, Vertigo, and Wildstorm comic book imprints combine to form the New 52 Universe. In this new form, the characters in the DC Universe had only been active in-story for five years. This reboot opened DC up to new readers, but it had its own problems with traditional fans. For instance, DC Comics, unlike Marvel, has often been characterized by the idea of “legacy,” with younger heroes often taking up the mantles of their mentors. One notable example is the Flash. Barry Allen took up the mantle of the Flash from the Golden Age Jay Garrick, and when Barry died in the first crisis, his protégé, Wally West, took over as the Flash. In the New 52, however, Jay was nowhere to be found, and the Wally fans had come to know and love over the years had been replaced by a different character with the same name who had never taken over for his mentor. Additionally, the New 52 also removed many classic superhero relationships from their stories. For instance, Superman was no longer with Lois Lane and Green Arrow was no longer with Black Canary.
In an attempt to simplify their line, DC in some ways had removed the “heart” from their stories: the legacies and relationships that made their stories tick. Not to mention that the new history of the DC Universe was again inconsistent and confusing, as no one knew where all of the characters histories and iconic moments fit in the new five-year timeline. For example, how could Batman have had four Robins in five years? Each writer seems to have arbitrarily picked which stories did or did not still “count” from the pre-Flashpoint universe.
Before DC’s current Rebirth initiative, there was another story that provided its own sublation for the DC universe and set up key characters for DC’s current stories—Convergence. Two key characters that we see in this story are the pre-Flashpoint Superman and Lois Lane, still happily married… and pregnant!
Convergence eventually resolves with a happy ending, the events of the original crisis being undone and the infinite multiverse being restored. Both the classic and modern versions of all DC worlds now exist, and the pre-Flashpoint Superman and Lois Lane end up as refugees on the New 52 Earth with their son Jonathan.
We now arrive at DC Rebirth.
In the DC Universe: Rebirth Special, the pre-Flashpoint Wally West returns and informs his mentor Barry Allen that someone has altered the fabric of the DC Universe, removing meaningful relationships from the lives of its inhabitants and even removing ten years of time from everyone’s histories, so the DC Universe seems poised for yet another sublation.
Throughout this brief examination, we have witnessed each of these crisis events both preserving and negating elements of the DC Universe for the purpose of telling more coherent stories.
This brings us back to Hegel and his project in his Phenomenology of Spirit.
Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit seeks to attain the standpoint from which one can have “actual [knowledge] of what truly is” (46). It does so by presenting the many shapes of consciousness that advance through a “serial progression” (51). The goal is for one’s knowing of an object to correspond to the object that it thinks it knows. However, “If the comparison shows that these two moments do not correspond to one another, it would seem that consciousness must alter its knowledge to make it conform to the object” (54). But to complicate matters further, “in the alteration of the knowledge, the object itself falters for it too…as the knowledge changes, so too does the object” (54). There is always an oppositional nature between one’s knowing of an object and the object itself until one arrives at the absolute standpoint or absolute knowing.
One sees an illustration of this in Superman Annual #1. The pre-Flashpoint Superman absorbs solar radiation at a greater rate than his New 52 counterpoint did. In this story, Swamp Thing shows up to confront Superman because his increased rate of sunlight absorption is affecting “the Green,” or the plant life on earth. An oppositional nature exists between this Superman and the Green. Swamp Thing informs him that this is happening because there are places in his mind holding him back from accepting the New 52 earth as his home. Swamp Thing then helps Superman to get rid of what is holding him back, and he adjusts the Green to deal with Superman’s rate of solar absorption. Knowing and the object were in opposition, but then we could say that a new “shape of consciousness” emerged that moved beyond the structure of that particular opposition. A sublation occurred that we could say created something akin to Hegel’s new shape of consciousness, complete with an object that itself was altered and was now known differently.
Hegel explores many shapes of consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit in which he seeks to demonstrate how one arrives at absolute knowing. For instance, Hegel begins with sense-certainty, that shape of consciousness which believes it has access to the naked truth of the way thing are or “what simply is” (58). It sees the object, and it thinks it knows everything about; however, any meaningful description will require more complex concepts unavailable to plain sense-certainty, like if the object is round, or red, or big. Sense-certainty thus gives way to another shape of consciousness called Perception, which can perceive the object and its “many properties” (67). The goal throughout is to pass through different shapes of consciousness, through which an object can “be defined more precisely” (67). Each new shape “contains what was true in the preceding” one (56). This process continues throughout the Phenomenology until Hegel arrives at the absolute standpoint at which one can begin to acquire knowledge of what truly is, when one’s knowing and the object are no longer in opposition. As Hegel writes, “[C]onsciousness will arrive at a point at which it gets rid of…being burdened with something alien” (56). By way of analogy, Superman will arrive at a point where the world he finds himself in no longer feels foreign to him.
One can see in the example of Superman the way that his knowledge of himself and his world changed both his knowing and the object of his knowing in Superman Annual #1, but more recently in Actions Comics #976. In this story, the pre-Flashpoint Superman learns the truth: he had been cut into two parts, the New 52 Superman and the pre-Flashpoint version. Upon this revelation, the histories of these two Superman are sublated and merged into one.
Superman’s very history in the DC Universe was rewritten—we might say that his knowing and the object of his knowing were altered—to combine his pre-Flashpoint and New 52 lives.
As Jesse Schedeen points out, this may be the way that DC Rebirth deals with merging the New 52 versions of its characters with some of the meaningful parts of their histories that the New 52 left behind.
All of the shapes of DC’s Universe over the years have collapsed under the weight of their contradictions and sometimes editorially mandated decisions, being sublated and carrying on in a new shape until certain contradictions were found which caused that shape to collapse and form a new one, and so on.
Hegel describes his project as “the education of consciousness” (50) and “the Science of the experience of consciousness” (56). Consciousness had to learn to know the truth about its object, such that there was no opposition between how it knows its object and the object itself. In a way, this brings the Phenomenology back to where it all started—no longer with an opposition between knowing an object but with a “certainty of immediacy” or a direct access to what truly is (491).
And so it is with the DC Universe. We are in many ways heading back to where it began. With an infinite multiverse. With the idea of legacy. With all of the right people in all of the right relationships.
With DC Rebirth, will DC finally reach its final sublation? Has it reached its own absolute standpoint from which it can tell its future stories without the need for further sublation? As Hegel wrote about watching the unfolding of the shapes of consciousness, “[A]ll that is left for us to do is simply to look on” (54) and wait to see what happens.
G.W.F. Hegel. Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller. New York: Oxford University Press. 1977.
Joshua Rivera, “‘Secret Wars’ will end the Marvel Universe as we know it,” Entertainment Weekly, http://ew.com/article/2015/01/20/secret-wars-marvel-universe/.
Jesse Schedeen, “Superman Discovers Huge Tie Between DC Rebirth and the New 52,” IGN, http://www.ign.com/articles/2017/03/22/superman-discovers-huge-tie-between-dc-rebirth-and-the-new-52.
Matthew William Brake is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He also has a Master of Divinity from Regent University and is a teaching pastor at Hill City Church in Arlington, VA. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources. He is a contributor for Noetic (www.noetic-series.com). He has chapters in Deadpool and Philosophy and the upcoming Wonder Woman and Philosophy. You can follow him on Twitter @mattybrake.